Diane Després (Anne Dorval), called Die, is a woman who it's tempting to roll your eyes at when you first meet her. She's well past forty but wears unflattering clothes meant for someone much younger, has streaked hair, and affects a brash, devil-may-care attitude that veers dangerously close to trashy. When she arrives to pick up her teenage son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a treatment facility for troubled youth, it's hard to imaging that he'll be better off in her care than staying at the facility. However, Die and Steve don't have much of a choice. Steve's latest bout of violence - setting a fire that severely burned another boy - got him kicked out of his program. Now Die has to take on the responsibility of keeping him from ending up in jail or a mental institution.
I had difficulty connecting with Xavier Dolan's last film, "Laurence Anyways," which was about the life and loves of a transgender woman. "Mommy," on the other hand, hit me right where it hurts. I identified so quickly and so completely with Die after only a few short scenes, despite her all her flaws. Yes, she drinks too much, often behaves like a teenager, and is clearly in way over her head trying to parent Steve, but fundamentally she's a good person who wants to help her son. Anne Dorval is wonderfully raw and funny, balancing the total mess of Die's self-indulgent lifestyle with the fierce maternal protectiveness just under the surface. You're angry at her one minute for behaving like a brat, and then terrified for her the next when Steve has a horrific meltdown.
Then there's Antoine-Olivier Pilon, who matches Dorval beat for beat. He's an intense presence onscreen, constantly moving, cursing, dancing, teasing, and getting into every variety of trouble he can. Already bigger than Die, fifteen year-old Steve is physically intimidating and completely unpredictable emotionally thanks to ADHD and other issues. But there's also a awkward sweetness to him and a capacity to be something more. Xavier Dolan includes several sequences, set to a soundtrack of '90s pop songs, where Steve has these joyous, bright moments of happiness. The soundtrack is brilliantly uncool - Eiffel 65's "Blue"? Dido's "White Flag"? "Wonderwall"? - but instantly evocative. Add the gorgeous visuals of Steve skateboarding, dancing with shopping carts, and losing himself in the sound, and it's breathtaking cinema. There's one particular, heartbreaking montage near the end that is hands down my favorite piece of filmmaking of 2014.
There's also a third major character, Kyla, played by Suzanne Clément, who is Die and Steve's new neighbor, and serves as the catalyst for their gradual reconnection. She's in recovery from a trauma that's never directly addressed , but after she gets caught up in Die and Steve's lives, the situation improves for all three of them. Suzanne Clément provides a strong presence, and though Kyla is the least developed of the leads, she's never overshadowed by the other two. I only wish that Kyla was given more to do, as her big scenes are among the highlights of the film, but her role in the narrative is very limited. I'd call her subplot the weak link of "Mommy," but her character certainly isn't.
And good grief, we can't forget about the director. I could write about the daring of Xavier Dolan using a 1:1 square aspect ratio that extends to widescreen for pivotal scenes, the influence of his background in queer cinema, or all the awards that "Mommy" racked up at the Cannes film festival last year. But honestly, the art house bona fides just feel like distractions. I love the film because it made me feel so deeply for these characters, and that's all that matters. "Mommy" is far from perfect, with pacing issues and logic gaps, but this is one of the best onscreen portrayals of a parent-child relationship in recent memory. And there are moments here of pure cinematic bliss the likes of which we see far too rarely.
Go watch this movie. Don't let the fact that it's French language, or artsy as hell, or that the main characters are a pack of hooligans dissuade you. This is human drama at absolute its best.