Some films arrive at the Palm Springs International Film Festival virtually unknown; others show up after receiving serious acclaim at other festivals.
Mommy falls into the latter category: It’s received a bunch of honors, and reportedly earned a 10-minute-long standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.
On Sunday night, Jan. 4, Mommy was screened to a full house at the Annenberg Theater. Director Xavier Dolan was not in attendance, but one of the film’s producers told the audience that at the age of 25, Dolan has already directed five feature films—and that Mommy was his second film to be shown at the PSIFF.
Mommy is set in Quebec in 2015, after a new law that allows parents to commit their children to a psychiatric facility goes into effect. Die (Anne Dorval), a widowed mother, receives a phone call with bad news: Her son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), has set fire to the cafeteria at his school for troubled teenagers. He’s being expelled and released to her care; when Die tells the school official she has no options, the official reminds her of the new law. She replies that it isn’t an option.
Steve, to put it mildly, is troubled. He has an extreme case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as a violent streak. When Die loses her job because she has to care for him full-time, they meet their mysterious neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a stutterer who explains she is on sabbatical from her high school teaching position. Kyla befriends Die and takes on the task of educating Steve.
Kyla’s own home life also seems to be troubled; she’s emotionally distant from her husband and young daughter at the same time she’s getting closer to Die and Steve. Meanwhile, Steve’s episodes begin to ease, and he eventually develops a goal of applying to Juilliard. However, it isn’t long before a situation arises that makes it hard for Die to care for her son; she has to make a tough choice.
This is not an easy film to watch. Steven’s episodes are powerfully depicted—they’re disturbing and violent—and the ending is extremely heart-wrenching. Dorval and Pilon reportedly amplified their emotional responses at the request of Dolan, and the result is a no-holds-barred experience. Both of them are outstanding.
Mommy was Canada’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, but shockingly did not make the short list. This film delves into uncharted territory; Dolan should have a long and successful career ahead of him.