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'Mommy' Review: Xavier Dolan's Latest Wavers Between Powerful and Exasperating

It’s hard not to empathize with this troubled teen and his equally mercurial mother, but the writer-director undercuts his characters by wallowing in classist squalor

The artist shows us the world and demands that we face its injustices and explore our own role in perpetuating them. The brat, meanwhile, sulks in his room and grumbles, “The world sucks, man.”

Writer-director Xavier Dolan wears both hats in his latest film, “Mommy,” which wavers between gritty, poignant drama and a wallow in how much it sucks to be poor and to wear unattractive clothes. (It’s the same kind of classist tourism that Iñarritú used to indulge in, with films like “Biutiful” and “21 Grams,” before finding a sense of humor with “Birdman.”)

Dolan’s brattiness, incidentally, has nothing to do with the fact that he’s a 26-year-old (with five features under his belt); Lars von Trier remains one of contemporary cinema’s great brats, and he’s pushing 60.

Shot in (Québécois) French with English subtitles, “Mommy” kicks off with a crawl telling us we’re in an alternate Canada in which a law has been passed allowing parents to remand their uncontrollable minor children to state institutions, and we’re soon introduced to this movie’s uncontrollable minor: Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who can be charismatic and funny, but who also has a tendency to become petulant and then violent. (We’re told he suffers from ADHD, but that seems to be putting far too fine a point on it.)

SClement11418088668His long-suffering mother Diane (Dolan regular Anne Dorval) -- everyone calls her “Die” -- opens the film by wrecking her car on the way to picking Steve up from another special school; he’s just been expelled for starting a cafeteria fire that gravely injured a fellow student. The widowed Die decides she’s going to home-school Steve, but it’s evident that she can’t control her wildly mercurial teen son.

Hope arrives in the form of neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a teacher on sabbatical. She’s pathologically shy and suffering from a stutter, but she seems to come alive around Die and Steve’s brusque charisma, and her pedagogical experience allows her to get Steve to focus on his studies, allowing all of them to consider a future in which the kid can finish high school and go study acting at Julliard.

Dolan lets us know when the characters are feeling happy and alive and no longer hemmed in by circumstance by widening the film’s aspect ratio from a 1:1 square to a more standard widescreen image. It’s an eye-opening effect (I was reminded of Tom Ewell snapping his fingers to make the screen go to Cinemascope in the opening of “The Girl Can’t Help It”), but the downside is that most of the movie is shot inside that hemmed-in box.

While the cinematography (by André Turpin, “Incendies”) is clearly Dolan’s attempt to portray these characters as trapped by their lot in life, it becomes a Brechtian distraction; every time I tried to lose myself in the storytelling, that damn square reminded me that I was watching a movie, and it put me at a remove from the proceedings.

It doesn’t help that Dolan visually overplays the working-class signifiers: Die wears clashing, trampy ensembles (despite being portrayed as a fairly intelligent woman who should know the kind of effect her wardrobe is having on other people’s perceptions of her) and carries around a carabineer with dozens of keys on it. All these accouterments feel like a betrayal of Die in favor of an easy shorthand for portraying her socio-economic condition.

The three lead performances cut through Dolan’s showier tendencies, creating relatable, empathetic characters; we share in their glimmer of optimism for a better future, making it all the more painful when reality comes crashing down. Even a moment that might feel contrived in a lesser film -- a Céline Dion sing-along while cooking dinner -- manages a sort of off-putting exuberance that’s hard to look away from.

This wunderkind writer-director has racked up admirers and detractors the world over (almost all of his films, including this one, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival), and both camps will no doubt find much to bolster their opinions in “Mommy,” a movie that left me not unmoved but mostly annoyed.