Mommy could be Dolan’s Oscar winner

He’s been the darling of Cannes since the release of his first film in 2008, but now Xavier Dolan could actually net film’s biggest prize.

Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon

Xavier Dolan has been the darling of Cannes ever since his debut feature J’ai tué ma mère wowed the crowds there in 2009. He has yet to collect the Palme d’Or, but his new film Mommy got an epic standing ovation at the French film fest this year, and tied for a win of the jury prize — with Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, so that’s far from an indignity. But now, with Mommy having been selected as Canada’s Oscar pick, he could be a contender for the biggest award in (French-language) film. A nomination would be magnificent, but with a win, Quebec cinema’s boy wonder would finally graduate to Batman.

Mommy is one of the kinds of movies that does well at the Oscars: a harrowing portrayal of a working class family’s tragedy, with a streak of hope painted down the middle. Here, that streak is paired with feel-good MOR radio hits from 20 years ago (Dido, Oasis, Counting Crows, Celine Dion), so even those sequences manage to be pretty painful. What makes Mommy a great film is its performances, its balance of glamour-less grit and playful fantasy, even though the latter, in Dolan’s hands, sometimes feels like schtick.

Mommmy is the story Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval, Dolan’s movie mom from J’ai tué ma mère) and her efforts to reintegrate her 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) into her trashy suburban life, and back into society. The film opens with her collecting him from juvie, and refusing advice to dispense with her problem child via a new federal law that allows parents to institutionalize their children. Before long the difficulty of life with Steve becomes apparent: he’s stubborn, foul-mouthed, aggressive, even violent — we learn that he’s been this way ever since the death of his father three years prior.

Die’s efforts at homeschooling fall flat, but her neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément, co-star of Dolan’s 2011 film Laurence Anyways) enters the picture just in time to relieve some mother-son tension and to pick up the pedagogy — she’s a teacher on sabbatical, due to a debilitating stammer that seems to disappear around the Duprés family. Cue that streak of hope, and the inspiring slow-motion sequence that Dolan is so fond of (this time involving a skateboard, strip mall and shopping cart).

Dolan has said recently that he wanted to punish his mother with his first film, while his intent with Mommy was to make the mom the heroine, and to put motherhood on a pedestal. He has achieved that, albeit in varying shades of grey — his depiction of Die as borderline trailer trash, her maternal mis-fires and the degrading depths she explores for the sake of her son are reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s complicated and often uncomfortable approach to heroines in his films. But luckily misogyny is not a problem here, largely due to Dorval’s incredible handling of a role that could have been a minefield of political incorrectness. To Dolan’s credit, issues of class and gender and incest are more like incidental props than centrepieces, and that’s a pretty huge achievement in subtlety, in a film that at first seems anything but subtle.

(Speaking of which, Pilon pulls off the near-impossible here — how can a character so obnoxious and punchable be so sympathique?)

So while it feels a touch too long, its music-video sequences earn an eye-roll or two and its vertical cell-phone aspect ratio might seem like a gimmick, Mommy comes out a winner. What helped to cement Dolan’s mastery in my mind as I reflected on this film for a few days was the thought of how Hollywood would remake it. I can see a major studio taking on any of his previous films, and though the results would likely be somewhat cringe-worthy, a Mommy remake would be a complete disaster.

Let’s hope they let it be, and give it that gold statuette. ■

Mommy is in theatres now (in French only)