This is part of an ongoing series by Rahel Tekeste examining each of Xavier Dolan's films
Few films can accurately portray the complexities of parent-child relationships with subtly and self-awareness. However, this 2009 debut film by Canadian director Xavier Dolan provides a fresh and uncomfortably accurate representation of his own relationship with his mother as a teenager. Despite the director’s young age and the film’s semi-autobiographical nature, he uses his experiences with his mother to effectively represent this complex dynamic with the kind of objectivity that’s usually lacking in films focusing on people his age.
The film takes place in present-day Montreal and focuses on the relationship between 16-year-old Hubert (Xavier Dolan) and his mother (Anne Dorval), and the way that relationship affects him and those around him. Hubert is disconcerted by the banality of his suburban environment and is easily irritated by his mother’s actions and behavior. Both him and his mother are contradictory in how they treat each other: in one scene, his mother cheerfully drives him to the video store, but reprimands him in public for spending too much time looking for a film and abandons him in the parking lot; later, Hubert tears his mother’s room apart when he finds that his mother plans to send him back to boarding school, but he quickly arranges everything back in order before she arrives home from work. Their incompatibility sets them so far apart that Hubert muses whether he was ever meant to have a mother – yet, they both know that they were not meant for anyone else.
Dolan portrays this contrast in an honest approach. Despite the drama, the film never becomes unrealistic or staged. Each character’s shortcomings are presented as objectively as possible, and Dolan is not afraid to show each character’s uglier personality traits. Much of what Hubert says reflects that of teenagers his age in terms of a complete lack of self-awareness, selfishness, and insecurities. However, Hubert also expresses compassion and love for his mother that he is not able to effectively convey due to his pride. Likewise, his mother is not simply portrayed as “good” or “bad.” There are certainly many moments in the film where she is selfish and short-sighted, but Dolan always makes it clear that everything she does is ultimately for Hubert’s own benefit and safety.
In the end, I Killed My Mother drives home an important point: that family members can simultaneously love and hate each other. The nastiness and malice behaviors of Hubert and his mother, no matter how discouraging, are always counteracted with their genuine compassion and kindness towards each other. Dolan’s effective representation of this relationship provides the audience with a kind of truth and perspective that is desperately needed in films about these subjects.