At first blush, Diane (Anne Dorval), the working-class, French-Canadian woman in her forties who dominates Xavier Dolan's Mommy, seems no more than a tired movie cliché, the single-mom slattern who drives other parents in her orbit to come on like the Harper Valley PTA.
Die's voice is gravelly, her language is X-rated, her jeans are skin-tight with sparkly bits, and her teetering sashay along the sunny suburban street she calls home brings pursed lips to neighboring windows. We meet her with blood on her face; she just got through hurling curses at a passing driver who clipped her car. Now she's reluctantly on her way to pick up her angelic-looking teenaged son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), who has ADHD and heaven knows what other clinical ailments that moved him to set a juvenile detention center on fire.
From here on in, things get a whole lot louder: On the way home Die spars and bickers with her offspring as if they were unhinged siblings trying to top one another. From the first, though, there's also a deep bond between mother and son, albeit one most social workers wouldn't approve of. Die's not exactly a textbook parent, and once she's got her son home, the two wind each other up incessantly, from long habit and with a kind of transgressive delight that invariably also ends in tears.
Everything about Steve is labile, from his temper to his sexual identity to the alternating currents of seduction, vulnerability and hostility he beams at his mother. She in turn cycles between inciting Steve and making helpless attempts to dial down his steep runs up and down the emotional register. And that's without added input from Die's unhappily married neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clement), a pretty Quebec transplant who, due to some unspecified trauma, has all but lost the power of speech. Appalled and attracted by the hair-raising energy between mother and son, Kyla soon neglects her own family to complete a wild-card unholy trinity that quickly becomes an affront to the petit-bourgeois order of their community.
Clocking in at an unfiltered — some would call indulgent — 129 minutes, Mommy gives the impression of having burst straight from Dolan's instincts onto the screen. At 25, the young director has written, edited, costume designed and produced his five movies. He grew up surrounded by women, and having described his over-the-top 2009 drama I Killed My Mother as a "punishment" to his own mom, he calls Mommy his mother's "revenge." In fact the movie plays more like a celebration, albeit one that throbs with enmeshed ambivalence.
Mommy, Canada's Oscar submission for this year's Best Foreign Film, may be Dolan's most mainstream work yet, but the movie pulses with vitally undisciplined energy, its operatic miseries offset by periodic happy fugues that both validate the troubled boy and underline his tragedy. Decked out in gold chains and flannel shirts, Steve cuts an incongruous figure. Yet, dancing with shopping carts or with two women who turn him on in disquieting ways, or skateboarding down the middle of the street to a mix tape made by his late father, Steve is all physical grace, a tone poem — however fleeting — to the liberation of free-floating impulse.
As her son's radical instability swells to crisis point, Die gets her own rosy wish-fulfilling sequence. But it's full of pathos, a dream of the ordinary milestones that bring joy to any parent rendered tragic by her dawning consciousness of their utter impossibility. Dorval is marvelously elastic here — by turns defiant and crushed, pleading with the blank heavens to "give me a f----in' break" — expanding all cliches of the single mom as she struggles with a decision she has no choice but to make.
Mommy confers on Die a hard-won wisdom about where all this is headed, and what she must do to protect her boy. Toward the end of the movie she promises her enraged son a future when "I'll be loving you more and more, and you'll be loving me less and less." That kind of topic-sentence truism can ruin a movie, but Dorval's brassy dignity redeems it. And if you know your Xavier Dolan, you can bet it doesn't get the last word.