Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Mommy

Reviews - Mommy


Reviewed By Vaughan Ames

We are now so used to seeing films on the widescreen that it comes as something of a shock to see anything else; shock was exactly what director Xavier Dolan wanted in his film 'Mommy' shown on Sunday. Not content with the old fashioned aspect ratio of yesteryear, he chose 1:1 – a square in the middle of the screen. What was he after?

The story he was trying to tell was about the very limited world of a teenage boy, Steve, who is thrown out of a special school for setting fire to the cafeteria and badly burning another boy. Steve is hyperactive, abusive even violent, with ADHD and serious boundary issues: it is these boundaries that Dolan introduces us to by the squared screen; we feel shut in and stressed by the small screen. This is shown beautifully about halfway through the film when he switches to widescreen – but more on that soon.

Steve's mother Die (our 'Mommy' here) lives in a fictional Canada where she has the right by a new law S-14 to place her son into hospital without any recourse to the law if she cannot cope. Die is an aging hippy with problems of her own when she is forced to attempt to deal with Steve's problems. She instantly loses her job when she is late (trying to set Steve up for home tuition), so she and Steve are now both trapped in this tiny world with no obvious signs of help.

Help does come, however, in the form of her neighbour, Kyla. Coming into their home in the middle of one of Steve's violent attacks on Die, where Mommy has locked herself in the toilet for safety, she gradually enters their world more and more. Kyla is herself in need of help – she has had to give up her teaching job due to stress and has developed a bad stammer. Somehow, Die's carefree attitude to life and Steve's needs bring back her confidence and the stammer disappears (until she goes home when it returns instantly).

All goes well for a while; Kyla is teaching Steve while Die goes to work, they are singing and dancing together and, as the two women cycle down the road, the camera focuses on Steve on his longboard: he is finally happy and free and he simply pulls the film into widescreen with his hands. A great bit of cinema, if an obvious piece of symbolism.

Their world soon caves in again, though, when Die receives a summons from the parents of the boy who has been burnt. It goes from bad to worse, resulting in a suicide attempt by Steve. As we think they are possibly getting it all together once again, the three of them go on a road trip to the seaside and Die dreams of Steve growing better and getting married. But this is a pure dream; on the way home, Die pulls the car into a hospital and we realise she has decided to use the S-14 rule. A heart-breaking scene follows with Steve fighting the hospital attendants, Die screaming at them to stop hurting him and Kyla looking on crying. The film ends with Steve in a straightjacket, Kyla moving away and Die trying unsuccessfully to see it all as positive: 'it will all end happily'.

Xavier Dolan was only 25 when he wrote, directed and produced this film and it was already his fifth film. A darling of some critics, hated by others, he left the Keswick audience equally spilt. A few walked out, others loved it ("worth more than 5 stars" one told me). Grim and stressful it certainly was – the square screen worked brilliantly for me on this point – but thought provoking too. I didn't notice the laughs (or even the tears) that many critics mentioned, but I was gripped to the end. Great acting... and a director to watch out for as far as I am concerned – he is already working on his sixth and seventh films.

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Keswick Film Club won the Best New Film Society at the British Federation Of Film Societies awards in 2000.

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