This French language Canadian film, the fifth feature from wunderkind Xavier Dolan, now 26, is both an emotionally affecting experience and an ordeal. For over two and a quarter hours you’re pulled into the lives of three tortured individuals, but the beauty almost makes it worth the pain. It begins with Diane, nicknamed Die (Ann Dorval), a 40-something widow, picking up her 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a youth facility. He is being kicked out because he set fire to the place, injuring another boy. Blond, with a misleadingly angelic face, Steve is at war with society in general, but really with anything he imagines will distract Die, or “Mommy”, from total devotion to his needs. What mother and son have in common is disdain for the rules of society, the foulest language you can imagine and a penetrating intelligence which they both use, in their own way, to manipulate others. But Die is at least able to focus on basic needs, finding work as a translator and maintaining a home for Steve and herself. Steve has no such inclination. He will ride his skateboard, play loud music and shoplift when the mood strikes him. After Die tries to set him straight, he blows up and nearly strangles her.
So far, it’s the setup for a familiar dramatic conflict, but with exceptional acting. What drives the rest of the film, however, is quite original. Living next door is a married couple and young daughter. The wife, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), is about Die’s age and looks very much like her. But she is demure and withdrawn, in total contrast to Die’s brazen, lower class demeanor. She says she is a teacher “on sabbatical”, but this is never explained. Yet, after a painful and sometimes violent transition period, the three of them bond into a kind of makeshift family unit, with Kyla home-tutoring Steve while Die gets jobs for expenses. This section is the heart of the film, and it works because Dolan gets performances of such fragile intimacy from his actors that you actually believe in their relationship. A crucial scene is of the three of them dancing while preparing a meal in the kitchen; you sense that beneath the joyful abandon is an awareness that their only chance of survival is a total support for each other. Yet we continue to watch with dread, knowing that Steve’s unyielding demand for Die’s love will destroy their hopes.
Our expectations are fulfilled, and then some. The climax shows Die and Kyla picking up Steve from the hospital after a self-destructive act. Die says she has to pee, but she pulls into a parking lot near a fortress-like building, which is strange. Steve, still dazed from medication, fails to see what’s coming. The next scene, brilliantly edited, whips the camera back and forth to each of them, at distant locations in the parking lot. Both women have breakdowns while Steve struggles with the attendants, who need to use a taser to immobilize him.
Rarely will you see actors pushed to such emotional extremes and yet, not once, do you sense an “actorish” moment. But it only succeeds because the depth of their relationship is the story; we know how much it pains Die and Kyle to do what they did, but we also accept that they had no choice.
As with some other quality films I’ve seen recently, the screenplay is overstuffed and unresolved. A fantasy of Steve having a normal life – including marriage and a child – is unnecessary, and a scene in a karaoke bar is poorly done. The circumstances of Kyla’s depression are never explained, but Clement’s subtly shaded performance overcomes this lapse.
A final word: There’s been criticism of Dolan’s use of a 1:1 ratio screen size as a distracting affectation. I think it intensifies the action, lending power to the more emotional scenes. But whatever you think of it, it’s odd that one of the most honored films of the year, Birdman, gets only praise for a different gimmick: following the film’s action with only two actual cuts for its entire two-hour running time. The camera swoops around talented actors playing clichéd characters in dozens of New York locations for no purpose whatsoever. And Inarritu gets the Golden Globe screenplay award! Go figure.