Mommy ★★★★½

There's a lot about Xavier Dolan's fifth effort, Mommy, which will remind viewers of his first piece, J'ai tué ma mère...except turned on its head; indeed, Dolan even cast the same mommy, Anne Dorval. Mommy shares so much with its predecessor, the dynamic of the mother-son relationship, the explosive histrionics and volatility between the pair; and yet the dynamic is framed in such a different perspective (and ratio). Mommy takes the focus away from Dolan's own eyes and instead focuses on the maternal figure, her struggles, her pain, her choices. If anything, Mommy almost feels like an apology for the earlier film.

The film is set in a fictional Quebec in the near-future, where legislation has passed forcing parents to either accept responsibility for their children's own actions, or institutionalise them. We meet Dorval's character, Diane 'Die' Després, on the way to pick up her son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a care facility which has expelled him for poor behaviour. Die, faced with little other option, takes Steve into her own care, and leaves her job in order to home school him. It's at this point we see a fuller picture of Steve's temperament; Steve suffers from ADHD and various other behavioural issues, including (notably) an attachment disorder. It's after an episode of violent proportions that the pair become properly introduced to neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément); from this point, the three form a bond which becomes beautifully fulfilling for each of them.

Mommy is typical of Dolan's visual style in many ways, various slowed takes, a vitality and vibrancy in colour that has become pivotal in his works; and yet, it's what Dolan does differently here that makes a powerful impression. The boxing of the film in a 1:1 ratio is an audacious move for he and cinematographer André Turpin; it clearly serves a purpose, which becomes most noticeable during the moments where the ratio isn't applied. These moments are incredibly moving, and the choice to box the viewer into the unique frame pays dividends and then some. Add the almost superb soundtrack choices, including a potent moment to the music of 'national treasure' Celine Dion (no, Dolan is not channeling "My Heart Will Go On") and you have yourself Dolan's greatest cinematic achievement to date.

Dorval is phenomenal here. Her performance makes the film in so many ways; the viewer is left coping with the same struggles Die faces in every moment. There's an astounding palpability to the intensity of the situations her and Steve face; at every turn, you are left emotionally drained but wondering where the narrative is going to go next. And then Dolan just continues infecting you with his affliction again and again. Clément is also fantastic in what could have been the very bland character of Kyla, whose struggles are oft-neglected by the narrative, but whose own pain you can feel through her pained facial expressions, her oft-sad eyes. And young Pilon is brilliant as well.

This film is emotion turned up full bawl. Heartbreaking. Gut-wrenching. And all of its players know just how loud to turn it up. A talent finally learning to refine his ability, Dolan has created a film which should easily be considered one of the year's best; Mommy is an incredibly special journey for any fan of Dolan's previous work and more.