Xavier Dolan’s Critically-Acclaimed ‘Mommy’ Is Mostly Art House Conventional (TIFF Review)

Mommy, written and directed by Xavier Dolan, starring Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clement, Antoine Olivier Pilon, French with English subtitles, 134 minutes, US release date TBD, opens in Canada September 19th. 

My first movie of TIFF really makes me wish I’d devised one of those clip art rating systems, where the icons at the beginning of the review tell you what to expect from each film*. French. Incest Angle. Child Delinquent. Suicide attempt. Mental breakdown. Shifting aspect ratio. And straitjackets! An honest-to-God straitjacket!

Those are the clipart Boy Scout badges I’d use for Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, an initially intriguing but eventually exhausting French-Canadian movie about a struggling mom and her delinquent son named Steven (pictured above, doing their weird-yet-predictable Oedipus dance). More specifically, it’s about Mom and Steven’s special relationship with their neighbor, a former teacher on enforced sabbatical because of her stutter and who seems to have a dark family secret (a secret that makes her stutter!). Ooh, that should’ve been another icon, “dark family secret.” Anyway, the kid that desperately needs to be reached meets the stuttering teacher desperate to teach, and many montages ensue. “We Need To Talk About Steven,” they could’ve called it. Only she can’t! Because she stutters! Oh cruel fate!


French-Canadian writer/director Xavier Dolan is a 25-year-old “wunderkind” (the official programme’s word) who has already made five feature films. In short, exactly the kind of lightly exotic, precocious indie auteur festival audiences go a big rubbery one for. Mommy already split the Jury Prize, Cannes’ bronze medal, with Godard’s latest back in May (with Dolan saying at the time that he’d seen maybe two Godard films and really didn’t like them). Basically, Dolan rides into TIFF on a tidal wave of whispered festival buzz. But even not knowing all that going in, you can watch Mommy and see why he’s a big deal. He has a very particular and effective visual style, blending tight, perceptive close-ups with glowing golden tracking shots and slow-motion montages, often set to loud, non-diagetic pop songs (mostly in a 1:1 aspect ratio in Mommy, a square that looked like a triangle from my seat in the extreme front row). I get the sense that being able to shoot a prematurely-cathartic montage sequence is precisely the kind of skill a writer/director would need to power through a lot of projects in a relatively short amount of time. Not quite sure what you’re trying to say? No problem, just add a feely montage. Ta da, life is beautiful, there’s your angle. It’s kind of like the story equivalent of pick-up artists who can fake intimacy through negging or other mind tricks.

But it does look beautiful. Which is to say, my first exposure to Dolan leaves me cautiously optimistic for future projects, but also compelled to point out that glowing tracking shots and slow-motion music montages aren’t really narrative choices.

At the very least, Mommy starts off feeling like it has something to say and ends with you wondering if it did. It opens with Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) picking up her teenage son Steven (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from an institutional boarding school, where he’s been expelled for starting a fire that burned another student. This school was already something of a last resort, and now she has to take on this human hardship herself. In her conversation with the schoolmaster, Die is pissed and surly about the hopeless plight of her son, and refuses to offer any empathy for her son’s actions, even when the schoolmaster offers her the olive branch of “don’t you at least feel bad for the kid who has been disfigured for life?”

Nope, f*ck him, she’s got too many problems of her own to care about that right now. For his part, Steven, this teenage French Eminem character, is this sort of adolescent chimp, capable of tenderness and sweet moments, especially towards his mother, but also a volatile mix of churning hormones liable to rip his handler’s face off at any moment. He’s a grab bag of delinquency – kleptomania, light sexual assault, lack of impulse control, bad temper, liable to spiral into an ugly racist tirade, capable of strangling his own mother. “He has ADHD,” mom says.

Die maintains a compelling mix of enabling behavior and desperation. She loves her son and wants to help him, but what can she do? He’s a monster. Then their stuttering neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément) shows up, and for a while it seems these two broken families just might mend each other, donchaknow. Kyla’s shyness starts to evaporate once she’s away from her own family (for some unspoken reason), while Steven’s sexual attraction keeps him actually listening to a teacher for brief moments. She eventually snaps when he teases her about her stutter, because of course.

Mommy has some great scenes, but it’s hard to get past the familiarity of it. There’s a lot of capital-D Drama with shouting and breaking glass and yelling and hair pulling, very French. The scenes run the gamut from intense and effective to a suicide attempt that I think I first saw getting into a cab 10 blocks up. I don’t know what it is with every young aspiring arthouse director that makes them so fascinated with suicide attempts — almost always washed out and set to tasteful classical music, a la Shame. It’s such a stock “dramatic moment” that it feels like something born not of personal struggle but an affectation, a moment you include so that people will know that you are a Serious Filmmaker. “Stealing the tears of the losers,” as John Dolan (no relation) once described A Million Little Pieces.

It’s the same with the Oedipus stuff in Mommy. It’s there, but not really in a meaningful way. It’s almost like it’s ticking off a checklist – incest, poverty, racism, suicide, montage. In the end, I didn’t get much from Steven and Die’s journey other than that it was dramatic in a general, tragedy-is-beautiful sort of way. And you can tell it’s run out of meaningful things to say at least 10 minutes before it ends, making the final moments that much more intolerable. Yeah we got it, now wrap it up, bro, some of us have to pee.


Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

*Fantastic Fest actually had one of these in their program last year, to their credit. Because Fantastic Fest is what happens when you have people who actually love the movie part of the movie business running a festival.