“A boy’s best friend is his mother,” uttered by the titular killer Norman Bates in “Psycho,” remains one of the most iconic lines of all time. But can a boy’s best friend also be his worst enemy? Can the love between a mother and son become so tangled, so deeply dependent that their bond becomes detrimental to them both? In Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy,” loud-mouthed white-trash widow Diane Despres (Anne Dorval) becomes the sole caretaker of her mentally ill fourteen-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Oliver Pilon) when the troubled youngster is released from an institution for disturbed children.
Steve is, simply put, out of control, and we witness his whacked-out rages first-hand almost immediately. His mother glibly enables his psychotic behavior to the point of almost encouraging it, and there is an incestuous subtext between the two that several times ceases to be subtext at all (such as the scene where the lad puts on eyeliner, turns up his tunes and gropes his mother’s breasts in front of a curious onlooker.)
Steve and Diane get a new lease on life when a timid woman (Suzanne Clement) with a bit of a stuttering problem comes into their lives, bringing help and healing- if only temporarily. Things are complicated by a lawsuit based on the damaging effects of a fire the boy started in the institution. Suzanne adds some degree of stability to a home rife with dysfunction and violence- but can people this damaged be healed?
“Mommy” is elevated above an okay family-values-gone-awry/oedipal complex movie by the three outstanding lead performances. Anne Dorval is magnificent in an acting job that will enrage you into wanting to slap her smug face and then break your heart. Antoine-Oliver Pilon is terrifying as a volatile teen whose mood vacillates on the turn of a dime, and Suzanne Clement provides steady support as a character who is under reactionary and strange at best, totally underwritten at worse.
Indeed, the stammering Kyla doesn’t seem to have any reaction whatsoever to the destructive love that Steve and Diane share; she is just there to help. This lack of judgment should be inspiring but instead seems to have come directly out of the twilight zone. How long could you handle Steve’s insane antics without cracking? The only moment where Kyla hints at deeper levels of trauma is her attack on the jeering Steve; the rest of the time she’s pretty fucking caviler about a family dynamic that would leave most running for the hills.
Unfortunately, the worst thing about this movie is the 1:1 aspect ratio (a perfect square,) which is jarring and distracting and takes away attention from an effective film. The filmmaker, Dolan insisted that it was more ‘intimate’ this way, but I suspect most viewers are so used to the majority of or all the screen being filled up that this is merely distraction.
Despite a lack a likable characters, “Mommy” is compelling (mostly due to its stellar acting) and even grueling. Of course it can not portray in it’s entirety the horror of caring for a severely emotionally disturbed kid, but it provides a honest (if not exactly hopeful) look at when love is not enough to sustain parent and child. The film itself is a dark, heart wrenching ride (portraying the depths of dysfunction between a deeply damaged woman and her disturbed son,) but Anne Dorval particularly deserves all the awards she gets. Freud would be pleased.
Note- The bright-light film critic Xan Brooks referred to “Mommy” as a ‘boisterous Oedipal Comedy.’ What. the. Fuck. Did we watch the same movie? This film was grim and depressing from beginning to end. Very little ‘comedy’ to it other than bemused mortification.