Telluride 2014 Review: ‘Mommy’

Mommy Xavier Dolan

Now that I’ve been to the Cannes Film Festival myself, I understand what makes a Cannes winner. They reward innovation that doesn’t lose the humanity. Getting to see Xavier Dolan’s Cannes winner (well, shared with Jean-Luc Goddard, which ain’t bad company) here in Telluride transported me right back across the ocean to where films like Mommy premiere.

Diane Depres (Anne Dorval) is forced to take custody of her son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) after he is expelled from a state institution for troubled teens. Taking care of Steven costs Diane her job and the burden increases further as she’s in charge of his home schooling. We just watch these people live and their life is riveting, troubling, and exhausting.

The innovation is in shooting the film in a smaller aspect ratio than even the old 1.33:1 films. If I had to guess, I’d estimate the ratio at maybe 1:2. It’s a vertical frame. Perhaps Mommy is a movie for the vertical video generation, as the frame resembles what happens when people shoot video on an iPhone the wrong way.

What the aspect ratio really does is makes the entire movie a portrait. Every shot is framed like a portrait. So when we say that a film is a portrait of its characters, we’re being metaphorical. Dolan took it literally and it works.

Steve is volatile, even in a good mood. He is dangerous and sympathetic simultaneously. This is a real condition with which families deal and as scary as it can be, it does no good to vilify Steven. Diane is a ferocious mother, no nonsense taking care of business. She’s also graceful at all of life’s troubles, the major ones and the mere nuisances. 

Social interactions are tense because when society does its social thing, Steve is unpredictable. Diane and Steve do form a bond with their neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), who is wonderful too. She is a prime example of patience, as she suffers from a stutter of her own, so it’s a good personality type to throw in the mix. She has human fragilities too so she’s not a saint, but her patient nature is lovely.

Now, I don’t know if this is an innovation or just a translation, but the English subtitles had an interesting way of incorporating colloquialisms into the text. A lot of uses of “I’mma” instead of “I’m going to” and a lot of “you”s abbreviated to “ya.” There was even a “whatev” in there. So were the characters speaking the Candian French equivalent of these colloquialisms? Either way it gives Mommy and interesting read for us foreigners.

Mommy can be a tough movie to endure. You may have to brace yourself for it, but it is a rewarding experience. That is what we ask of cinema, to take us difficult places with the trust that the filmmaker will take care of us. We get to leave after 139 minutes. There are families like Diane and Steve who keep struggling on.


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.