Wunderkind French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan is one of those people whose career can't help but make you feel inadequate about how much you've managed to accomplish with your life. Only 25 years old and Dolan has already directed five feature films, every one of which has premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It's enough to make you irritated, if the kid weren't so damn talented. His first film, the semi-autobiographical "I Killed My Mother," received only a small release in the states, though it did screen in Rochester at the ImageOut Film Festival in 2010 (and is one of my favorite films the festival has ever shown). Dolan's latest feature, "Mommy" acts as a sort of companion piece to that film. Whereas the previous film focused on a fraught mother-son relationship with a bias toward the contemptuous offspring, here the director's sympathies are much more aligned with the object of that maternal disdain as it depicts the intense (borderline incestuous) relationship between widowed mother Diane (Anne Dorval) and her mercurial teenage son, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon).
Its opening crawl marks the film as technically science-fiction, explaining that the story is set in an alternate Canada in which parents can commit their troubled teenagers to a state institution if raising them proves too difficult. As the film opens, Steve's violently aggressive behavior has gotten him kicked out of the juvenile detention center where he's been living, and released back into his mother's custody. Already struggling to make ends meet, it's an added burden Diane can barely afford to take on.
Dissatisfied with her own home life, a timid neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), allows herself to be drawn into the pair's orbit, becoming a confidant to Diane and a tutor for Steve. The three form a tight unit, though it might not be enough to save them when the boy's compulsively destructive impulses threaten to ruin everything they've built. As one social service worker warns Diane early on, "Loving people doesn't save them."
Formally inventive, "Mommy" is shot in a 1:1 aspect ratio, making the film look like an Instagram photo come to life. Meant to make the audience feel as boxed in as the film's characters, that decision might have felt gimmicky in less capable hands, but Dolan turns it into an effective tool. When combined with the restrictive framing and heightened emotions, the film's hyperactive pace can be overwhelming, but also exhilarating. I wish Dolan would find himself a more ruthless editor -- the director has a history of indulgence when it comes to the length of his films -- but the breadth does allow ample time for his actors to shine. By its nature, Pilon's performance feels like a lot of adolescent posturing, but he always makes it compelling. Dorval and Clément, on the other hand, are nothing short of luminous.