The French-Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan is 25. “Mommy,” his fearsome yet tender mother-son psychodrama, is his fifth film. The last director to start so young, at such a pace, was Germany’s Rainer Fassbinder, who made 40 feature films and was dead by 37. I hope Dolan’s watching his cholesterol.
“Mommy” is of a piece with his earlier movies: feverish, personal, outrageously assured. It’s hard to watch — at times nearly impossible — only because the character of the adolescent son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), is so successfully realized in concept and performance. Steve is every mother’s worst fear and every society’s nightmare, an aggressive, uncontrollable hulk of a teenager who seems to be barreling straight toward jail or an early death. And yet, as the title implies, this is a story of mother love, and of how far it can stretch before snapping.
The mother, Diane, nicknamed Die (Anne Dorval), is a toughie, a recent widow with few job skills who’s scraping by even before Steve gets kicked out of a youth facility for setting fire to another kid. (There’s some opening-title business about the story being set in an alternate-present Quebec, where parents are legally compelled to institutionalize their problem kids, but then Dolan seems to drop the matter.)
Tall, muscled, prodigiously foul-mouthed, and appallingly hyperactive, Steve is a trial for an audience to deal with, so imagine what Die is up against. Yet it’s the two of them against the world, and Dolan brings his camera in close, relying on tight shots that emphasize the hermetic nature of the characters’ bond. Die is still young and dresses like a tootsie; she gets looks from the men in her neighborhood that make her son’s eyes turn into death’s heads. Still, “Mommy” pushes past glib notions of incest into an emotional intimacy that’s even more primal — the first relationship of all, mother and child.
And then there’s an interloper. Having failed at home-schooling Steve, Die enlists the services of a neighbor across the way, a schoolteacher, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), who’s on extended work leave for mysterious reasons. She stutters badly and is clearly traumatized, yet she’s able to stand up to Steve in ways that strengthen her and socialize him. She neglects her own husband and young daughter to spend time with Die and Steve. She stops stuttering. The two become three.
If you like your movies to have a larger point, “Mommy” probably isn’t for you; it exists mostly to plunge us into its characters’ direct experience. (The same goes if you have trouble with unlikable leads, since Steve can be so hateful that you wish him ill — and then you have to wonder at a movie that can make you feel so strongly while also feeling a little scared at what you just wished for.) Dolan is able to weave dialogue, camerawork, a fluid yet urgent editing style, and a magpie’s ear for pop music into a cinematic world that you can almost hold in your hand before it starts spilling over.
He goes too far more than once, but that’s the privilege that comes with being young and absurdly talented. Indeed, “Mommy” can be read as Dolan’s meditation on what it’s like to be young and going too far without discernible talent or a socially accepted means of expression. Steve is more alive than anyone else onscreen, and he is terrifying.
So’s the film: frighteningly alive. Someday, Xavier Dolan may become a mature, responsible, respected filmmaker. It’s hard not to think it’ll be a step down.