Just when you think you’ve had enough of well-meaning films featuring disabilities and heroic struggles along comes one that completely restores your faith. Queer filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s film is a tour de force, an emotional power-punch that slowly makes its way into your head and then into your heart. It may deal with a lot of clichés but finds a winning way to tell its story.
Anne Dorval is Die, a handsome but tired-looking woman who has lost her husband three years ago and is now stuck with looking after her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). He has severe ADHD, a problem when he is such a strapping lad on the brink of discovering sex, and he loves a drink, a smoke and a fight. Die rescues him from an institution where he has apparently started a fire, and she determines to make a new life for them both. But boy, is he a handful, constantly swearing, eyeing up girls and unable to sit still to study.
Just to complicate matters, Die loses her job when her old boss, who she flirted with, is replaced by a battle-axe of a woman, so she moves the two of them into a cheap, grimy flat. There they squabble and Steve dabbles in petty stealing, until into their lives comes Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a seemingly kindly neighbour. She is a former teacher so traumatised by an unspecified event that she has a severe speech impediment, a stammer and stutter. She and Die become unlikely friends – Kyla is painfully shy, conservatively dressed and nervous, Die is brash, brassy, loud, fag permanently on her lips and tattoos proudly displayed. A glass of chardonnay is all it takes for them to bond, then Kyla appears to lose her stammer when talking to Steve. She begins to tutor him, and the boy responds to her gentle manners, but his past is always going to catch up with him.
This is melodrama writ large, with Dolan’s camera getting literally into people’s faces, especially Steve’s when he has one of his many fits, saliva spurting, eyes bulging, swear words firing out of him like someone with Tourette’s. Yet somehow the film slowly weaves its spell; his helplessness, Die’s overbearing motherly love, and Kyla’s quiet concern, all forming an intricate emotional web. Mommy, as the title suggests, tips towards hints of incest. Steve constantly tests his mother’s love and throws a hissy fit when she has a date with another man. Equally there is a key moment when he taunts Kyla and she responds devastatingly, hinting that his illness may have been set off by an emotional trauma involving his father.
If it all sounds a little overbearing and full-on, well, it is. There are probably a couple of meltdown scenes too many, and sequences of Steve on his skateboard listening to music are overblown – the soundtrack is a little cheesy to say the least. A good 20 minutes could have been trimmed (as issue that’s been true of some of Dolan’s other movies), but these are minor complaints.
What really makes it a success are the stunning performances of the two women. Dorval as Die is a force of nature – all cheap skirts, thigh-length boots, tattoos and lipstick, a street fighter who believes her sexuality is her only weapon but who even doubts that, constantly referring to her flat chest. She is clearly no-one’s fool. She actually gets some work as a translator of children’s books, but with a fragile set-up as she and her son have, it’s never going to last. Clement as Kyla is equally tremendous, a nervous wreck of a woman – the source of her trauma is never revealed, although her husband is a creepy presence throughout. Plucking at her hair, pulling at her clothes, her basic decency shines through even when she is groping for a word.
Visually the film is a treat, the warm glow of Canada in the autumn a constant backdrop to the shouting, and Dolan has uses a 1:1 ratio to give the film a ‘square’ look, which, after a few minutes of adjusting, actually adds to the claustrophobic nature.
Overall verdict: Thoroughly gripping, harrowing look at life as a single mum with a troublesome teen which is much warmer and funnier than the theme would suggest. A film that takes its time then throws a huge emotional knockout blow.
Reviewer: Mike Martin