When it comes to the films of Xavier Dolan, few emotional stones are left unturned. With his fifth film, Mommy, Dolan explores the nature of the matriarch through the lens of “a fictional Canada” in which “a new government comes into power during the federal elections of 2015. Two months later, its cabinet passes the S-18 bill, amending the Canadian health services policy. Specifically, the bill includes the highly controversial S-14 law which stipulates that the parent of a child with behavior problems has, in a situation of financial distress, physical and/or psychological danger, the moral and legal right to commit his child to a state psychiatric hospital, without further legal review.”
Thus, we are introduced to the plight of Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval), a widow faced with the responsibility of dealing with her physically and verbally aggressive fifteen-year-old, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). After the explanatory title card dissolves, we’re left with that archetypal image, a son’s boxers hanging on the clothesline, immediately indicating that Steve is very much Die’s entire life. The symbolism continues with a scene of Die picking an apple from a tree, an overt indication of the forbidden fruit motif that we’re about to witness. In a moment of calm trepidation, Die’s expression reveals the heaviness of her heart.
Dolan then cuts to Die driving to the tune of Sarah MacLachlan’s “Building A Mystery,” the first in an endless series of perfectly chosen throwback songs that seem to punctuate the “behind” nature of living in the Québec vicinity. The fact that Die gets in a car accident on the way to picking her son up from what seems to be a detention center posing as a boarding school, of sorts, is an implication of the endless river of problems Die encounters when it comes to anything relating to Steve.
And so, after getting through the hurdle of her auto snafu, she must contend with the administration of Steve’s school. As Die wades through the as of yet inexplicably watery halls of the building, a woman angrily informs her that Steve set fire to the cafeteria, causing the hospitalization of a fellow student. Die must then sign papers confirming Steve’s expulsion. As the woman suggests Die try the new S-14 law, Die shakes her head and says, “I’ll never do that to my son!” But, ah, the word “never,” without exception, curses a person. And thus, the woman warns, “Loving people doesn’t save them. Love is not enough. Unfortunately.”
Forced to spend all day with Steve, Die invariably ends up losing her job as an advice columnist/secretary at a local newspaper after showing up one too many times late in the midst of controlling Steve’s bouts of rage and thievery. Without any income to support them, Steve decides to take matters into his own hands by shoplifting groceries, along with a gold-tone necklace that reads “Mommy” in cursive font to give to Die. Upset by his stealing, Die sets Steve off with what he perceives as “ingratitude,” leading to a physical altercation between the two.
It is afterward, when Steve needs stitches on his leg, that their neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), is introduced as a much needed diluter in their lives. Her mild-mannered demeanor and current status as a teacher on “sabbatical” makes her the ideal and seemingly only person capable of understanding Steve’s troubled nature. To show appreciation for Kyla helping Die tend to Steve after his episode, Die invites her (and her contrastingly reclusive husband and daughter) to dinner. Steve’s bizarrely overt Oedipal behavior manifests later in the evening in the form of feeling Die’s breasts to the soundtrack of Céline Dion’s “On Ne Change Pas”–(“our effin’ national treasure” as Steve puts it). Acclimated to their dynamic without being half as creeped out by it as anyone else might be, it is in this way that Kyla ends up becoming his tutor/glorified babysitter during the day so that Die can go about cleaning houses in order to make ends meet.
All the while, a lecherous neighbor, Paul (Patrick Huard), continues to flirt with Die, much to the disgust and jealousy of Steve, who can’t quell his green-eyed reaction when Die agrees to go out with him (awkwardly bringing Steve along as well) to discuss a lawsuit Die has been slapped with as a result of Steve’s cafeteria fire-setting. Ending up at a karaoke bar, Steve takes to the stage to sing–in another distinctly Dolan music choice–“Vivo Per Lei” by Andrea Bocelli. The deliberate selection, which translates to “I live for her,” is intended to get Die’s attention away from Paul, but doesn’t work until he ends up beating down one of the many hecklers accusing him of faggotry in the audience.
After the botched date, Paul reams Steve, shouting, “She’s going through hell for ya! Because of ya! She gives you everything. Her cash, her time, her whole life.” Steve, of course, is not receptive to his logic, though Die calling him a “retard” after he drives Paul away leads Steve to a public wrist-slitting in the coming days. In the wake of this dramatic display, the dust momentarily settles, with things resuming to normal within the trio of Die, Steve and Kyla. But, as the rule goes, “nothing gold can stay.”
While Steve’s behavioral issues are largely neurological, it can’t be denied that Die’s parenting method, one that favors enablement and aversion of obvious realities, is a significant factor in the hindrance of Steve’s growth. Moreover, the toxic relationship–one that espouses an “us against the world” mentality–further compounds Steve’s inability to change in any way. One supposes that, as the concluding song, Lana Del Rey’s “Born to Die,” suggests, mother and son can no longer go on–whether that means as before or without each other is arbitrary; it is as the administrative woman at the beginning foreshadowed, repackaged in the lyrics of Del Rey: “Sometimes love is not enough.” And certainly it’s too much when you’ve signified to your progeny that it’s okay for him to kiss you.