There are two movies trapped inside Mommy. It’s never both at the same time, just one or the other. One of them is a truly great film that examines family and friendship in a way movies rarely show us. It’s powerfully acted and shot with clear creative purpose. The other movie is infuriating. It’s a hysterical melodrama, overwrought and over-written, with a sense of self-importance so thick you could gag on it.
That’s not to say the movie is inconsistent. Writer-director Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother) has a strong vision. Every moment of the film is clearly guided by his directorial hand. Despite his public persona as an obnoxious, bratty dolt, Dolan can make a movie. He knows exactly what he wants to do, and he does it well. It’s just that sometimes, his vision is annoying.
Mommy is the story of Dianne (Anne Dorval, Heartbeats, I Killed My Mother) readjusting to life with her troubled teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Indochine: College Boy). Steve’s just returned home from a youth correctional facility, has crippling ADHD and is frequently violent. With the help of a neighbor (Suzanne Clément, Laurence Anyways, Les hauts et les bas de Sophie Paquin), Dianne homeschools Steve with feeble hopes of straightening him out. If that sounds harrowing, it can be. But only when Dolan makes it so. When he lets his movie breathe, his characters bring an emotional honesty that makes this a film worth seeing.
But he’s usually hell-bent on making Mommy a misery-laden guilt trip. There’s lots of screaming and crying and hysteria. None of it ever feels earned. It’s there because Dolan thinks he needs it to give this story meaning. It feels forced and lazy, as do his multiple musical montages set to saccharine ‘90s pop ballads. I’m not sure if his use of Celine Dion or Eiffel 65 is meant to be ironic or sincere, but it doesn’t work.
That’s Mommy’s biggest flaw. So often, it’s practically screaming at the audience. “Look at this! It’s art!” It doesn’t work. When Dolan stops telling us, and instead makes art, it works damn well.