Mommy, Xavier Dolan’s most recent film, continues on his current trend of exploring deeper and more complicated themes in this engaging drama. Two of his regular cast members, Suzanne Clément and Anne Dorval, return and provide deep and emotionally enriching performances. Dolan also returns to his familiar filming location of Montreal. However, this film explores a new theme, which is that love alone can’t support a family.
The film focuses on the relationship between Diane (Anne Dorval), a single mother, and her teenage son, Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), when the latter is released from a youth detention center for setting the cafeteria on fire. Diane struggles to find a way to appropriately raise her son due to his severe ADHD, among other possible mental disabilities, and enlists the help of her shy neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). Kyla homeschools Steve and provides a helpful ear to Diane and her emotional troubles. Despite the growing respect and admiration between the three of them, their efforts are not sufficient to raise Steve, and Diane admits him to a mental hospital.
An interesting comparison can be made between this film and Dolan’s first film, I Killed My Mother. Both movies focus on the relationship between a single mother and her teenage son. However, the scope of both films and the themes involved are very different. It is these changes that define Mommy as the more mature and complex of the two. In terms of perspective, his first film centralizes on Hubert and how his relationship with his mother affects the people around him, mainly his boyfriend. His mother’s motivations for her actions and feelings towards him are not explored. Mommy concentrates on Diane and the struggles and sacrifices she makes to raise her son. Telling this story in Diane’s point of view shows how limited she is in terms of her knowledge of Steve’s condition and how to handle it. The audience knows as much about Steve as she does, and therefore is able to empathize with her decisions. This film is also more mature with the handling of its themes, and brings in greater, societal issues. The hurdles Diane face are impediments to the presumption that love is all that is needed to raise a child.
One of these issues is Diane’s financial difficulties. When Steve is released from the detention center, Diane is experiencing troubles in her office job. Throughout Steve’s stay with her, Diane eventually finds a somewhat stable job as a house cleaner, and later, as a freelance book translator. It is unclear as to whether these jobs would be sufficient in supporting Steve for a significant amount of time. These struggles are difficult enough for one person, let alone a single mother.
Probably the biggest challenge Diane faces is finding an effective way to raise her son. Much of Steve’s emotional development and his experiences at the detention center is unknown to Diane. The reason why he sets fire to the cafeteria is never revealed, thus adding to the anxiety and uncertainty of the circumstances. Diane initially tries to approach the situation by enforcing rules for Steve and presenting herself as an authority. Steve doesn’t perceive their relationship like this, due to unknown reasons, and constantly rebels against her. Much to Diane’s dismay, love is not sufficient in order to get through to Steve. Diane does not have the emotional capacity to find an effective method, due to her lack of knowledge of Steve’s condition and how to approach it, and her own limitations as a single mother.
Whether or not Diane’s decision to institutionalize Steve was justified is not the focus of the movie, and depends the viewer’s own opinions. However, what is certain is that love is not the only quality needed to raise a child. Many more factors have to be considered, like patience, financial stability, and an appropriate method of raising such a child. Diane undeniably loves her son, but the limitations placed on her are too great for her to effectively raise him. The assumption that only love is needed is very idealistic and a bit disrespectful, especially in situations like this one. It implies that the issues she faces are easy, thus discrediting the massive amounts of work and diligence needed, especially when done so suddenly.