Y’all know my incredibly strong feelings about Snowpiercer—it is the greatest, it changed my life, Chris Evans slips on a fish—and, to an equal if somewhat less rabid extent, my feelings about its actors. Tilda Swinton is a goddess, Chris Evans has no right to look that attractive and be as good an actor as he is (seriously, it’s not fair), John Hurt is the John Hurt-iest, which is some heavy praise, etc.
So when I say Mommy featured my favorite and second favorite performances of any movie this year, you know that’s a big deal for me, because it means there’s a year-end list that Snowpiercer isn’t at the top of. But Xavier Dolan’s Mommy deserves that spot. Its two main characters are Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval), a widowed, 40-something mother of one, and her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who suffers from ADHD and attachment disorder and, at the beginning of the film, is tossed out of the institution where he lives after he lit a kid on fire. Their relationship is unhealthily co-dependent yet weirdly functional, at least in the short term. Die is the only one who really gets Steve, and vice versa.
For all that Steve, prone to physical violence and screaming outbursts, is not the easiest person to deal with, Die loves him more than anyone else in the world, and he’s really the only person she has any sort of emotional connection with. At the same time, she resents her son, which comes out in a drunken tirade near the end of the film. Her job, her romantic prospects, even her very life are threatened by her kid. The choice to put Die exclusively in truly awful late ‘90-early ’00s clothing, jeans with strips of lace down the side and honest-to-god crimped hair at one point, is a subject of bemusement until you realize, holy crap, her wardrobe stopped progressing when her son was born. She stopped progressing when her son was born. Then it’s just gutwrenchingly sad.
(Also a blast from the past—the soundtrack includes Sarah McLachlan, Counting Crows, “Blue (Da Be Dee),” “Wonderwall,” and all sorts of nostalgia tracks from your middle/high school years. It’s weird, but it works.)
The relationship between the two is nuanced and understated, while at the same time incredibly rich and powerful. I’m just going to go ahead and tell you that this movie is not feel-good (And not just because of the incest overtones that you’ll be aware of if you’ve seen the poster. Honestly, I wasn’t that weirded out by it, because I was under the impression that it would be worse, so what there was just had me “Oh… OK”ing. Hey, I thought the film and director were both French. They’re not. They’re French-Canadian. Live and learn.)
Dorval is absolutely heartbreaking as a woman who wants to be a good mother to her son, wants to see him grow up to be successful and happy and normal… but knows deep down that’s probably never going to happen. She knows that even keeping him free, not locked up somewhere, might be beyond her. Pilon also pulls off an acting tour de force, especially when you consider that his character does some thoroughly shitty things. Because he has a mental disorder, but still. He had to make the audience sympathetic to a character who, in his first couple of scenes, screams racist obscenities at a cab driver.
Mommy also does something really interesting with aspect ratio. And “something interesting with aspect ratio”—hey, that’s not something I say often! You’ll know it when you see it. I’m not sure if the idea was Dolan’s or cinematographer André Turpin’s, but whoever’s idea it was, they deserve praise for coming up with a unique, breathtaking way to add emotion to a story through the use of visuals.