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category: Review

Side Street Films: Mommy

Tuesday, April 21, 2015 by

Eden Cinemas’ innovative Side Street Films programme is aimed at showing that there is “more to cinema than Hollywood” – and we couldn’t agree more. Our resident cineaste Shaun Antnin takes a look at the fortnightly offerings from Eden’s artistically oriented programme and decides what they are worth.

Fiesty Diane ‘Die’ Despres (Anna Dorval) prefers her clothes tight and her opinions blunt. She is feisty, hard-working and brutally honest. She is also the widowed single mother of 15-year-old Steve (Antione-Olivier Poulon). Steve is tall, easy going and charming; he also suffers from mood swings, ADHD and attachment disorder. His moods are bi-polar in the extreme, alternating between an exuberant love of every aspect of life and extremely violent outpourings of rage-fuelled aggression.

Steve has spent the majority of the three years since his father’s death in a number of voluntary correctional institutions, with each interment deemed an outright failure. At the onset of the narrative Die is forced to take him into her own custody – after he is removed from his present facility for burning another young inmate’s face – as a young offender’s prison or a psychiatric hospital are now the only remaining alternatives, and Die does not want her only child to enter a system she feels he would never exit. Steve’s volatile nature also means Die is forced to home-school her son, while also working to support the both of them.

Across the road lives Kyla – a teacher currently on sabbatical and suffering with a speech impediment resulting from a breakdown of undisclosed causes. After Steve explodes and attacks his mother, Kyla intervenes and soon builds a strong bond with both the teen and his mother. All three are troubled in their own way and each need the other two, but for different reasons, and these are the themes the film explores.

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Although Die is the key protagonist, with her and Kyla’s relationships with Steve serving as the primary plot strands, Kyla’s strained relationship with her computer programmer husband is also touched upon to highlight the galvanising and therapeutic effect the relationship she builds with the Despres-O’Neil family has upon her.

It could be argued that the more one cares about a film’s protagonists and their predicament(s) the more effective a filmic work, regardless of any extraneous technical wizardry laid on by any cinematographer or special effects team. Mommy is no exception to this tenet. Although there is a plot, one is often left with the sense that the entire film is ultimately a character study of the leading protagonists’ personas, with the narrative merely serving to contextualise and justify its depiction of the events in their lives which are played out on screen.

This feeling is heightened by a stylistic innovation apparent throughout almost the entire film: it is shot in a ‘vertical letterbox’ format – officially a 1:1 ratio, but this appears narrower on a widescreen cinema screen – something which I had never previously witnessed in a cinematic release. Although the lensing is immaculate, with each scene perfectly shot and lit, a consequence of the aspect ratio is that the viewer’s attention is focused entirely on the behaviours of the characters in the story.

While Wes Anderson also toyed with varying aspect ratios in last year’s playful Grand Budapest Hotel, his reasoning lay, arguably, in a desire to emit a required air of postmodern homage and reflect the work’s fictional time setting, rather than in any narrational purpose. Here, however, it serves as an integral element of the plot, forcing the viewer to focus entirely on the protagonists’ emotional state and resultant behaviour.

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As one who believes the best films focus on people, their feelings and their interaction with one another, this film ticks all the boxes. Prior to watching I was completely unaware of the Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan who, at a mere 25 years old, is directing what is his fifth film. His youth is apparent in the freshness of his work, and it must be said that he is a very emotive director.

Not only does the cinematography force the viewer to emote with the characters on screen, but the plot is also highly emotive. As with Steve’s moods, the entire film is an emotional rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows perpetually intent on encouraging sympathy with the protagonists. This affinity is aided by the quality of the acting and the film’s soundtrack. Music is central to every scene, with each key event set to (often rather familiar) songs clearly selected to heighten viewers’ emotions or evoke their empathy.

If one wanted to be cynical, it could be argued that the film is overly long, too emotional and not really structured enough – with what is, ultimately, a wafer-thin plot. It also suffers from rather unnecessary introductory title cards which transpose the film’s ‘contemporary’ setting to an alternative present which hangs over Die, Steve and the plot like a circling albatross.

None of these factors deterred me while watching the film, nor should they detract from what is ultimately an excellent piece of cinema. I enjoyed every moment and would not hesitate in recommending this to anyone willing to step on to Dolan’s emotional rollercoaster.

 

 

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