Xavier Dolan is 25 years old and has already made five highly regarded, award-winning feature films. He's a writer-director-producer-editor-costume designer and sometimes star. Not just that, but he's beautiful and knows it. It gets worse: as a side gig he does the voice of Stan Marsh from South Park in Québécois French. The natural reaction, obviously, is to wish for a piano to drop on this twerp's head. But let those feelings subside and focus on the films. Mommy, his fourth to play at Cannes but the first one in competition for the Palme D'Or, is another accomplished and stylized emotional drama. It's very, very good, whereas his earlier films were merely good with one “very.” There are still one or two things that prevent it from being great, but Dolan is a filmmaker who swings for the fences and isn't afraid to go all-in with his instincts.
Most notably, Dolan plays with form. Mommy is shot in 1:1. It looked like an enormous Instagram when projected at the Cannes Film Festival's Salle Debussy. Doubling down on millennial instincts, the soundtrack is loaded with '90s nostalgia from Dido to Oasis. Where's that dropped piano again? No, no, no, it's fine, 'cause listen – I may feel like Methuselah watching this movie, but the emotion is real to Dolan. He's fairly resistant to snark. His characters spew feeling all over the place, quick to launch into passionate arguments and expressions of deep love.
Mommy is basically a three-hander. Teenager Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is a problem child. His mother Diane, nicknamed “Die,” is a widow with some fight still in her – the type of woman who has a thousand jangling gewgaws coming off her keychain. (Die is played by Anne Dorval, who acted opposite Dolan as his mother in his first film, called I Killed My Mother.) Die is cut from the Gena Rowlands cloth and the half-funny, half-scary, shouty/sexually frank relationship she has with Steve is very reminiscent of John Cassavetes' best work.
But this time it is the son under the influence. He's got ADHD and can get violent without his meds. He needs to be homeschooled now, but Die needs to work. Fate smiles upon them with a new neighbor. Kyla (Suzanne Clement) is a mousy former teacher who is recovering from some sort of nervous collapse. She's prone to stuttering, but in time a bond forms between she, Steve and Die. After a getting to know you period, there comes happiness, musical montages and, eventually, histrionics.
Dolan doesn't play anything half-assed. The bickering is quite funny, the arguments are brutal but music video-driven epiphanies are a little hamfisted. Maybe if there were just one, but the movie has a few. Imagine if Titanic tried repeat business on “King of the World!” You know who does this? Zach Braff does this. Comparing Xav to Zach in Cannes may get your passport torn up at border control, so please no one report that I said this until after I leave.
And yet, while you are grimacing, you are also half-smiling. I guess this counts as something of a SPOILER but the movie doesn't stay in 1:1 entirely. At an apogee of happiness (just after Steve shouts “Freedom!”), she pushes his arms out and the image stretches to wide screen. It's totally corny, but I cannot tell you a lie: I got a little goosepimply. I felt like a total sap for doing it, but I didn't see it coming. The Cannes audience burst into applause mid-film. Ya gotta give the movie credit.
But then: disaster. Later in the film, the same gag is done a second time. Dolan chased the dragon. Blame it on his youth. Plus there's a completely distracting plot device – this movie is technically set a tiny bit in the future – that would have worked fine without any backstory.
Still, all three of the actors are remarkable, and eyes naturally gravitate to Dorval's title character. Rarely do we see roles for women of a certain age, and she is vibrant and marvelous and sexy and sympathetic. Clement's Kyla is no joke, either – she is sad and mysterious without saying too much (but she has a disgusting laugh).
Xavier Dolan's movies are never going to be a big deal in America and I don't see him coming to Hollywood anytime soon. Why would he? He's hooked up to make the kinds of films he wants to make as is. (A passing anti-American jab in the dialogue is to be accepted, too.) Humorously, this French Canadian film had English and French subtitles at Cannes. I asked a French speaker what that was all about, and he referred to lay Québécois as post-apocalyptic gibberish – not the accent, but the vocabulary, like “the true-true” from Cloud Atlas. Further evidence that Dolan's voice is a unique one.