After all the criticisms I dropped on Tangerine, I’m going to sound like a hypocrite when I say that I loved Mommy. Two abrasive leads often seen at their worst moments, Mommy shares a lot of similarities with Tangerine. But what makes Mommy work so much better than Tangerine is its sense of cinema and complex characters.
The son is Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), a boy with mental issues who is dropped back into the care of his mother due to being in a weird limbo state with Canadian health care. Diane (Anne Dorval) doesn’t welcome her son with open arms, but with a lot of cross words and profanity. Steve stands toe-to-toe with her in terms of vulgarity and abrasiveness.
Off the bat, these are sympathetic and flawed characters. It’s obvious the two love and care for each other, they just can’t get past how easily they irritate and annoy each other. At times, they feel more like bickering siblings than mother and son. Thrown between this incendiary pair is Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a neighbor who offers to help Diane homeschool Steve.
And while these characters carry the film, it’s the filmmaking that quickly demonstrates how powerful a story can be with the right director at the helm. Xavier Dolan shows a masterful sense of camera placement, pacing and music. Every scene feels tenderly crafted to walk a fine line between the abrasiveness and the sentimentality.
For example, the sequence set to Wonderwall could come off as trite or lazy, but the technical skill of the camerawork coupled with a deliberate pacing that fits the flow of the song results in this bold, magnificent sense of delight as the three characters take a reprieve to enjoy themselves.
One aesthetic choice I’m still not sure what to think of is the abnormal aspect ration. Cut down to 1:1, the frame is literally square. I’m not sure if this is supposed to achieve a greater sense of intimacy with the camera’s subject, or perhaps it intends to add a sense of claustrophobia, an inability to escape. I don’t think it’s a bad choice, just a puzzling one.
And while all this technical and artistic skill make the film all the more moving, it’s the film’s commitment to laying the groundwork that makes Mommy work. At two hours and 19 minutes, the film takes its time getting to the dramatic moments, but it’s never dull or boring. Watching these characters are fascinating, even in the more embarrassing and unpleasant moments.
This culminates in one of the best final scenes of recent cinema. The music could have been a cheat, the ending could have been unearned, but the film put in the hard work, built up these characters, followed their trials, picked a solution, and showed the aftermath. Credits roll, music up, hearts won.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing