Saturday 19 December 2015

Mommy (2015) - Movie Review
Everyone, to some degree, has a mental disorder that either has been dialed down and given a populace-friendly acronym or is undiagnosed but still more common than the person in question may realise. I myself have been handed a series of diagnoses over my lifetime, and may still have some waiting in the wings, but it’s not exactly something I treat that seriously. My thoughts about the debates going on about people on the autistic spectrum (which encompasses a metric crap-ton of labels) is along the same lines as my attitude to the ongoing LGBTQ debates: Admitting to such things isn’t automatically brave. It is rather unnerving that we live in a society where openly saying that you are one thing or another is something to be commended for, rather than just being a mundane part of the human experience. I come from a family that is very pro-autism awareness since my own diagnosis, and even though I applaud their enthusiasm on the subject, there’s only so many articles being shared on Facebook about who is and who isn’t an Aspie that I can take. Then films like this come along and remind me that, as much as I like to think otherwise, some people still need serious education on the subject.

The plot: Diane (Anne Dorval) is a single mother looking after her teenaged son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon), who suffers from ADHD. As his mood swings and outbursts grow more frantic and violent, Diane can only hope that she has the strength to help her son through it all. However, when support arrives in the form of their new neighbour Kyla (Suzanne ClĂ©ment), maybe their bond may be enough to help them through it after all… I actively felt a piece of me die as I typed that, and you’ll see exactly why as we go on.

Might as well start out by addressing the most obvious element of the production: The aspect ratio. Most films released today are in 1.85:1 or 2.39:1 widescreen and, with the advent of widescreen TVs, films are no longer being cut down to letterbox format for home video release. I bring all this up because Xavier Dolan’s approach is… interesting. He filmed it in standard widescreen, then cut it down to 1:1 for release. It is presented as a moving picture portrait for about 95% of the film, because doing it normally would have been “extremely pretentious and incompatible” in the director’s own words. Basically, it was done to give a more intimate view of the events of the narrative and not simply to make it easier to watch it on an iPhone in portrait view. Now, to be fair, it is only distracting when first getting used to watching only the dead-centre of the screen and isn’t a major issue in that regard.

Where it is an issue is in how the effect is realised. Rather than being more humble and private as Dolan wanted, it instead feels like clinical examination; like a case study in family dynamics that I’m looking at for a psychology lecture. As a result, the emotional drama ends up falling more times than not because the decreased screen space makes everything happening feel way too distant to take in properly. The only time it works to the film’s advantage is a scene where Steve is being heckled while singing karaoke; then again, it’s because that scene is supposed to feel cold and harsh. Now, I did mention how it is like this for most of it, as there are two scenes where the ratio widens into natural widescreen. These are easily the best parts of the film visually, as the extra breathing room allows for better audience engagement as well as working decently as a thematic parallel to the other scenes. However, I’d say that is more damning than anything else, as these scenes work so well because they offer a break from the isolating framing. Not only that, they aren’t nearly fulfilling enough to make the rest of the over-two-hour running time feel worth it.

It may be rather cold to say that this film fails emotionally speaking, considering what is depicted, but I will try to bring some better perspective to the situation. A few short years ago, I pretty much was Steve: A violent and petulant little shit that, while kind and caring, was too emphatically emotional that it made day-to-day life a trial for both myself and those around me. I sympathise with his circumstances immensely… but I don’t sympathise with him. To me, his actions and his attitudes aren’t making me feel sorry for him because, outside of them and his love for pop music, he doesn’t have a personality of his own. He’s just a walking, talking spectrum diagnosis who only has his actions to speak for him and, when those actions are impulsively violent with very few acts of redemption, it is more difficult than it should be for me to commiserate. Then we get into how his condition is handled and… oh boy.

A few short months ago, my own tendencies in the real world got even more out of hand than they ever did previously. We’re talking police, ambulance, psych checks, overnight stay at the hospital for my own safety; all that fun stuff. Had I not been “advised” to step into that ambulance by those policemen, I probably wouldn’t be here to type this right now. What I am getting at with all this is that there are times when stricter actions have to be taken in the best interest of a person’s mental well-being. Here, Diane does everything possible to avoid a possibility where her son could be put into a psychiatric hospital because she want to help him herself. Then we get a scene where Steve openly slashes his wrists at a supermarket, in full view of everyone. Okay, no matter how slack the medical staff may be, it’s at around this point where anyone would agree that he needs professional help.

However, once Diane finally does just that, the film frames it as a betrayal and the worst thing she could do. True, the medical staff are a bit rough, but sometimes that approach is needed. It isn’t even the fact that this action is taken as a bad thing; it’s more that this possibility was never exercised earlier. Okay, making use of the film’s S-18 bill is a little much, but there are seriously no other medical steps taken to help Steve; he was just expected to recover on his own with his mother’s help. You want to talk dangerous thinking? Try a film that shows the same kind of “avoid the establishment” mentality that fuels most anti-vaxxer parents. I’m all for freedom of beliefs in all regards, but the line gets drawn when people are at serious risk of mental/physical harm by those beliefs. I’ve talked about films that deal very badly with mental disorders on this blog before, like with Love Is Now and Love The Coopers. Somehow, even with how much structurally better this film is, this is even worse than those two because this one actually took time to try and deliver pathos for said disorder. In the process, however, it ended up enforcing extremely hazardous methods that can only end up making things worse for the people involved.

All in all, even with its wonky and mishandled production ideas, like the aspect ratio and the rather ill-fitting soundtrack, there isn’t a whole lot to hate about the film structurally speaking. That said, this film’s stance when it comes to those with mental disorders and how they should be treated might be some of the most naively toxic I’ve come across in cinema in a very long time. This transcends simply being insensitive and goes straight into enforcing potentially dangerous behaviour; as someone who knows how much a film can influence a person’s world view, I vehemently detest this film on that basis alone.

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