Movie Review: ‘MOMMY’ Wildly Skirts Disaster Yet Remains Potent & Raw

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Bill Graham // Film Critic


MOMMY | 139 min. | Rated R
Director: Xavier Dolan
Stars: Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément and Patrick Huard

There’s a moment three quarters of the way through Xavier Dolan’s emotional MOMMY that shows just what the film could have turned into in another director’s hands that leaned more towards a typical, safe ending. And just as you get comfortable with the idea, he lets you know it’s all a rouse— a stunning, potent daydream of what could be. Through this pulling of the rug, you realize that Dolan isn’t attempting to please the audience but instead show us both sides of reality. Life is rarely a straight shot. MOMMY revolves around a single mother in Canada that is taking in her trouble-making teenage son. He’s rambunctious and full of passion, but he’s got a dark side as well.

Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) has streaks of violence that threaten to overrun the widowed Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval). She has trouble disciplining him, and ends up attempting to homeschool him while also going to work. You could say this would be difficult, but that simple adjective doesn’t quite do the struggle that ensues the justice it deserves. Just when things seem to be at a breaking point, the neighbor across the street comes into the picture.

Kyla (Suzanne Clément) just happens to be a teacher, though she is used to dealing with small children versus the rambunctious Steve. While far from ideal, she is able to get him interested in learning when he isn’t flirting with her. Dolan has worked with all three actors before and here he isn’t afraid of pushing the boundaries yet again. Steve is a curious youth and a growing boy. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does give us an idea of where he is coming from as he seems to flirt with the two older female figures in his life.

The film is shot in the narrow frame similar to a cellphone camera held upright. At first it is incredibly jarring to behold, as so often I am used to seeing films try to fill more of the screen instead of less. It’s about as controlled as it gets, though, as the film is made by twenty-five-year-old Xavier Dolan, who in six years has made five feature-length films with varying success. Diane and Steve are mirrors of each other, as both have limited inhibition. They say and do what they please, and it’s easy to see where Steve gets his reckless nature. Diane coasts as much as she can, but with another mouth to feed she has to figure out her life so she can provide for her son.

Antoine Olivier-Pilon, Anne Dorval and Xavier Dolan on the set of Mommy. Photo courtesy of Les Films Séville.

Antoine Olivier-Pilon, Anne Dorval and Xavier Dolan on the set of Mommy.
Photo courtesy of Les Films Séville.

Powerfully, Pilon is able to play the role that you often come across in your youth. Steve is the kid that can get himself into trouble just as quickly as he can talk himself out of it. He exudes control when he’s not in a rage. In many ways, he’s pleasant to be around. But his temper flares wildly and while often violent it is also more of a childish rage that can quickly turn to sorrow. We see all of these emotions from Pilon, and truly as an audience it can be exhausting to experience with those around him. Dolan puts us right in the middle of it all and challenges us to come up with a better solution to Diane’s problematic life.

Far from a story that provides easy answers, MOMMY often feels on the brink of falling off the rails. There’s a manic energy that stems from the central characters. They are pinballs and you never know what they are going to bounce off of next. Equal parts exhausting and thrilling to watch, Dolan gives us plenty to chew on here. There’s plenty to discuss and yet the beauty of the film is partly in the discovery of the relationships that form and why. Rest assured, though, there are few films like MOMMY that can be both difficult to watch and relentlessly riveting at the same time.

MOMMYis playing in theaters today.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.