If it merits no other superlative, Mommy is unquestionably the most hyperactive movie of the year. It begins at a fever pitch and maintains that degree of in-your-face intensity for well over two hours, to either exhilarating or exhausting effect, depending on one’s tolerance level. Imagine an entire film that takes its cue from Brad Pitt’s performance in 12 Monkeys. Such reckless energy could only come from a youngster, and, indeed, French-Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan is just 25 years old, though this is already his fifth feature. He’s made better films, and he’ll likely make worse films (given his prolific nature and general fearlessness), but it’ll be hard for him to top this one for sheer maniacal exuberance.
An actor himself (though he doesn’t appear in Mommy), Dolan adores other actors, especially women. Here, he doesn’t fashion a story so much as just a flimsy scenario that provides an opportunity for three combustible performances to repeatedly collide, creating sparks that threaten to set the joint ablaze. The primary relationship is between a middle-aged dynamo named Diane (Anne Dorval), who goes by “Die” (that’s how it’s spelled in the subtitles—not “Di”), and her teenage son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who’s like Dennis The Menace on steroids. Their love-hate bond borders on the incestuous, and eventually gets complicated by the arrival of Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a mousy, vaguely dissatisfied woman who’s just moved in across the street from them and decides she prefers them to her own family.
Since an opening title sets Mommy a few years in the future, after Canada has passed a controversial law that allows parents to instantly commit unruly children to an institution, there’s little doubt that Steve will eventually prove too much for Die to handle, even with Kyla’s help. That showdown is a long time coming, though, in a movie that’s mostly content just to observe the whirlwind this oddball trio creates. Dolan has worked with both actresses before—Dorval starred in his debut, 2009’s I Killed My Mother, and Clément was the female lead in his third film, Laurence Anyways—and it’s easy to see why he was eager to get these two relatively unknown powerhouses on-screen together. Their diametrically opposed performances, with Die as foulmouthed ego and Kyla as stammering superego, complement each other perfectly, as Dorval continually finds new shades of maternal anarchy and Clément gradually lets Kyla emerge from her shell. Pilon, however, makes a supremely irritating id (even allowing that the character is meant to be a train wreck), relying too heavily on unmodulated shouting and wanton destructiveness.
As an additional distraction, Dolan chose to shoot Mommy in a 1:1 aspect ratio—a perfect square (though an optical illusion makes most people incorrectly perceive the frame as slightly taller than it is wide). This constriction takes some serious getting used to, and there’s no real justification for it, apart from novelty; one could argue that the dynamic among Die, Steve, and Kyla is somewhat claustrophobic, but that’s a stretch. At the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere, critics (who are usually relatively stoic) burst into applause when Steve seemingly uses his hands to push the frame open to a widescreen ratio during a musical montage, and it wasn’t entirely clear whether we were celebrating Dolan’s formal audacity or were just grateful that the movie, after over an hour, finally looked normal. (False alarm, by the way: The frame shrinks again after a few minutes.) Mostly, the device comes across as unintentionally ironic, since Mommy’s biggest problem isn’t that it looks like a square, but that it spends so much time going in circles.