Out Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan returns to US movie screens this weekend with the often intense but thoroughly likable Mommy (Roadside Attractions). An official but snubbed Academy Awards submission and recent winner of our GALECA Dorian Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it is Dolan’s best film out of the five he has made to date. It is likely premature to call it his masterpiece though, since Dolan is all of 25 years old.
Mommy explores the tensions and travails between Diane, a.k.a. Die (a fantastic, Dorian-nominated performance by Anne Dorval) and her 15-year old son, Steve (the excellent Antoine Olivier Pilon). Reunited following Steve’s incarceration in a treatment center for troubled youth, which he is kicked out of for starting a fire, theirs is a deeply loving but immensely challenging relationship. Steve is afflicted with an extreme form of ADHD and his emotions can turn volatile, even violent, in an instant. To call him a handful would be a massive understatement.
Some degree of unexpected but sorely needed help arrives in the form of their new neighbor, Kyla (Dolan regular Suzanne Clement). A burnt out, seemingly fragile woman on a leave of absence from her job as a high school teacher, Kyla gradually finds renewed purpose as she helps care for Steve while becoming a true friend to Die. Things among the three go swimmingly for a while, but the lifelong dependency between Die and her son ultimately threatens them. Also presenting a strong temptation for Die is a new law in this near-future Canada that allows a parent to have their minor children with psychological issues committed for life, no questions asked.
It is hard to believe that Mommy isn’t autobiographical to some degree, as emotionally raw and observant as it is. But Dolan often lightens the tone by suffusing the film with his now-trademark use of contemporary pop songs and color saturation. He also effectively manipulates the frame size here in order to keep an intense focus on the main characters, periodically expanding the screen image as an expression of freedom and/or exuberance. With its great cast and a story all parents and teenagers will likely find relevant, Mommy shouldn’t be missed.
Cake, also opening this weekend in select cities courtesy of Cinelou, is another female-centric must see. It also arrives on the heels of a surprising Oscar snub for its leading lady, Jennifer Aniston, even though Aniston was nominated for Golden Globe, SAG and Critics’ Choice honors. Aniston plays Claire, who suffers from chronic pain as the result of an initially unspecified event. She attends a support group of similarly suffering women, although none of them is quite as acerbic or as dependent on narcotics as Claire. They are all knocked for a loop, however, when group member Nina (Anna Kendrick) throws herself off a freeway overpass and dies.
Claire becomes obsessed with trying to figure out Nina’s motivation. Why did Nina take her own life but Claire and other group members don’t follow suit? Was her suffering greater? Was Nina weaker or potentially stronger than the rest of them? In trying to find the answers, Claire ingratiates herself with Nina’s husband (Sam Worthington) and young son. She also receives support and guidance from her housekeeper, Silvana (a great turn by Adriana Barraza, recently seen on TV’s The Strain).
There is considerable gay cred behind the scenes of Cake. The abundantly compassionate yet frequently funny script, which won several competitions and made the Black List of best unproduced screenplays, was written by out writer Patrick Tobin (who also happens to attend my church). It was optioned by the married producer-director duo of Ben and Daniel Barnz, who previously made Phoebe in Wonderland and Won’t Back Down among other films. Their combined perspective makes Cake more than just a “chick flick.” It is a survival story that women, gay men and straight men can all relate to, which impressed me enough to tie Cake with the somewhat similar Wild on my list of the best films of 2014. Don’t even think about not seeing it.
Also recommended and continuing to play in LA and NYC theaters is Talya Lavie’s Zero Motivation (Zeitgeist Films). A M*A*S*H-esque look at the lives of women serving in the Israeli military, it reveals their strengths and vulnerabilities through a combination of satire and seriousness. Plus, the film features an extensive full-frontal nude scene of a hot soldier who is punished for taking advantage of a fellow, female enlistee. Too bad Lavie didn’t shoot it in 3D.
Zero Motivation: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.