‘Mommy’ Is an Overpraised Mess of a Movie

Middlebrow, glib, and unjustifiably pleased with itself, the winner of the Cannes Jury Prize arrives on DVD.

Mommy arrives on DVD with a string of major awards to its name, including the Cannes Jury Prize, which it won jointly with Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language. Presumably the intention of the jury in 2014 was to balance out the high experimentalism of the latter with the middlebrow glibness of the former, for there can be no other reason to honour a movie as contentedly shallow and inarticulate as this, the fifth full length film from director Xavier Dolan.

Mommy‘s characters are crudely hewn from a mountain of cliché. Partly because of this, its plot hangs together as might a hedgerow after an attack by a chainsaw. And Mommy‘s most dominant feature, its highly stylised narrative ultimately conveys very little other than a strong sense of self-satisfaction. It is an acutely flawed work.

Firstly, consider the characters and how they are presented. The Mommy of the title is Diana (“Die”), a brassy widow and single mother to a teenage son Steve. Die (Ann Dorval) is a loud mess of short skirts, swearing, and cheap jewelry, sassy and crude but lovable, with a heart of gold, as with improbable commonness characters like this do in movies. It’s a character sketch drawn in crayon.

Die is indomitable, always getting back up when life knocks her down. She’s also devoted to Steve as only a mother can be, loving him more and more with each passing day. We know this because she says so. And that is it for Die, a character who scrapes past the de minimis qualification for “multidimensional” status by virtue of possessing roughly two qualities. This may seem a harsh criticism, because after all don’t most movies not play on clichés or utilise certain archetypes in their construction of character? Well while a lack of depth and subtlety may not be a problem for, say, the Fast & Furious franchise, because those films have other charms, namely exploding cars, flying cars, and so on. It’s an issue for Mommy, however, a movie that explicitly presents itself as an intimate character study.

As for the other characters, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) has ADHD and various other behavioural disorders. The story begins when he is expelled from a special school for starting a fire in the cafeteria, which leaves a fellow student with third degree burns. Therefore, Die is once again given full responsibility for raising and educating her son.

As they settle into their new home-life Mommy and son’s relationship is either queasily close with some inappropriate son-to-mother touching, or destructive with some other inappropriate son-to-mother touching, which is to say he tries to choke her and only stops when she smashes a picture frame against his head. Balance is brought to this cartoon-ish Norman-Norma Bates/Itchy-Scratchy relationship by new neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a teacher on sabbatical after a nervous breakdown, who is also soon the victim of Steve’s inappropriate touching.

The entire cast does a fine job, although all performances in the movie are only ever a hair away from hysterical. The problem is not the ability of the actors — there’s enough on screen to prove their skill — but rather the limited materials which they are given to work with. Like Die, Steve is a tune with a very small number of notes. He’s loud and obnoxious, he loves his mommy, and he has a heart of gold.

We know that he has a heart of gold not just because he says something to that effect, but because the film itself is overtly fond of Steve. He’s presented as a good kid. Troubled, damaged, but good. A major problem is the incongruity of this narrative voice with the fact that Steve nearly kills three people during the course of the movie: the student caught in the fire, his dear mommy, and a man in a bar who ends up pinned to the ground with a broken bottle waved in his face.This is not a delicious juxtaposition of tone and subject matter. It’s not even a standard appeal to pathos whereby the audience is asked to sympathise with a very unsympathetic person. It just feels like a bad fit, and again that may be in part because the character of Steve is so limited and opaque. It’s easy to feel sympathy for a human being, less so for what is little more than a partial impression of one.

The audience is asked to like Steve, and believe that other people, particularly Kyla, just given enough space, also likes Steve. The relationship with Kyla is key, and it’s here that the plot of the story falls away. Kyla is extremely shy. The unspecified traumatic incident that caused her breakdown means that she can barely utter a word. And yet after only one terrifying afternoon with Steve, involving screaming, fighting, involuntary urination, and that inappropriate touching, she and Steve quite impossibly become best buds. Instead of running from the house never to return, as would seem the most probable reaction for a trauma victim, Kyla somehow sees that hackneyed heart gold, and the two form a bond. Movies need not be realistic, but some internal logic to the characters and their interactions is desirable.

Finally, Mommy might only be a poor film, and not one to actively dislike, if it were not for the prenominate high stylisation of the narrative. The film tries to service the story through the use of various devices, but in their failure the effect is one of onanistic self-regard. For example, most of Mommy is shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio. The approach would seem to present a close, intimidate view of the characters, to show the restrictions upon their lives, the claustrophobia, and so on, and so on, even though it is quite at odds with the often overwrought pitch of the acting. The proximity afforded by the technique would seem to be more suited to a naturalistic mode of drama.

Anyhow, the unusual aspect ratio plays a direct role in what is easily Mommy‘s most cloying scene. After Kyla has made her unlikely intervention, the trio form a happy team and the viewer is treated to another of the movie’s many musical montages. It’s one of those everything’s-cool/gettin’-things-done montages which bad movies show the audience right before everything goes wrong. It’s like a klaxon which signals the beginning of the third act.

This particular montage is soundtracked by Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’. The opening chords chime as Steve skateboards down the centre of a deserted suburban street. We see Kyla and Mommy pedalling hard on push-bikes to keep up with him. Cut to shots of Kyla and Steve sitting on a sofa, Kyla pointing to school books open on the table, and Steve reluctantly being overcome with the desire to learn. Further shots of Mommy knocking on doors, doing odd jobs, cleaning pools, making ends meet. As the chorus begins, cut back to a full length shot of Steve on his skateboard, his head back, eyes closed, arms out-stretched, not quite aloft. “Because maybe / You’re going to be the one that saves me”. An ADHD Jesus with a Britpop accompaniment. It’s the kind of crude, artless nonsense that wouldn’t look out of place in a mainstream romantic comedy from the mid-’90s. Jennifer Aniston now knows better, and so should Mommy.

The nadir has yet to be reached, though. That comes later in the same montage when, hotly pursued by Mommy who is chewing gum as always (her third character trait because in Mommy chewing gum pretty much qualifies as one) and an extraordinarily keen looking Kyla, Steve, now in close-up and still on skateboard and travelling towards the camera, reaches out of/into the screen and physically drags the 1:1 ratio into widescreen. Just to be clear: Steve feels happy and free and so to show this he forces the cinema screen itself to open up.

Shooting in the restricted aspect ratio was arguably a pretentious move to begin with, but one possibly, if used correctly, and if obviousness and a lack of subtlety are things to be prized, that could be justified for what it might add to the atmosphere of the film or convey about the state of the characters’ emotional lives. Steve’s extra little metafictional nudge achieves none of this. The terrible montage had already yelled the emotional state of play into the audience’s face, that state essentially being just the word “HAPPY”. What this rearranging of the fourth wall does do though is call attention to the device itself and its lack of ingenuity. The shot reeks of smugness, the self-satisfaction that was mentioned at the beginning of this review. It’s facile. It’s bad art. It’s like a cat framing its vomit and hanging it on the wall.

Of course if a cat were actually to do that, it would be quite an impressive feat. Unfortunately Mommy is not so novel or creative. If it had forsaken its bag of vapid tricks and numerous montages, and instead concentrated on refining its characters, then perhaps Mommy could have succeeded; the chemistry between Dorval, Pilon, and Clément would be potent enough to pull most movies out of the fire. At it stands though, Mommy is a clumsy attempt at an arthouse movie with some good actors, a bad script, and naïve direction.

RATING 2 / 10


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