By Nicola Field
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Issue 400

On paper, this award winning film by the acclaimed young director Xavier Dolan is packed with “issues”. It is set in a fictional Canada after the 2015 election. Reformed public health laws have shifted the landscape for parents and teachers of children with special needs.

Diane is a volatile single mother living in a scruffy suburb. She finds herself suddenly a full-time carer for her 15 year old son Steve who, diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, has been expelled from his residential facility after setting another student on fire. Diane missed out on school, struggles to be taken seriously as a journalist and translator and is now faced with becoming a home-educator to Steve, whose creative powers and extreme vulnerabilities appear desperately unmanageable.

Into this detonating crisis walks their mysterious, transitory new neighbour. High school teacher Kyla has been left virtually mute by an unspecified trauma. She is therefore unable to work and painfully alienated from her own husband and daughter.

Together, these three damaged, destructive, struggling individuals unite in a common purpose: to get Steve into art school. The ensuing drama weaves around societal and family norms to create a drama of survival, of tragedy and comedy, of winning and of losing. It is an interesting set-up, but the plot’s rich trajectory is just a framework for a visually radiant and emotionally startling filmic narrative. The film uses a 1:1 aspect ratio which produces a perfect square (we usually see rectangular 4:3 or 16:9). This creates a sense of portraiture, where the downbeat, intimate physical environment shapes into a shimmering, graphic and painterly context within which the trio of unstoppable characters reveal themselves.

Such a canvas also offers a format which can express the contradictions and conflicts of dark tragedy being played out alongside the lightness of high comedy. Physically captivating, the performances are also deeply unnerving. The ensemble cast have all worked with Dolan before. Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) creates semi-suicidal dance rituals which toy with taboo and transgression, pushing the boundaries of sex and gender to absolute limits.

The boisterous teenager tests every frontier of patience while his daring mother (Anne Dorval) laughs nervously, swears and chain smokes while using any means necessary to save herself and her son. Kyla (Suzanne Clément), who intervenes in the brawl like water on burns, has her tolerance pushed to a moment of frenzy which appears almost cannibalistic.

For people who want to create a better world, Mommy raises profound questions about how human frailty can be respected and individuals nurtured. It demonstrates how capitalism’s social support systems, even at their best, are frequently unacceptable, harsh or inappropriate. Above all, though, it’s a work of art drawn from life which will make you laugh and break your heart.

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