Director: Xavier Dolan
Stars: Suzanne Clément, Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon
Reviewer Jacqueline Lucas Palmer
Do we have a moral right to put a troubled teenager in a psychiatric hospital? Xavier Dolan’s latest film set in Montreal explores that question in the story of Diane and her son Stevie. Diane (Anne Dorval) is in her forties; wearing sequined jeans, her hair streaked, chain smoking and gum chewing, she seems more like an adolescent. She collects her teenage son Stevie (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a state detention centre where he has caused a fire, and landed a kid with third degree burns. “Tough luck!” she fires back defensively in her Quebecois patois, but the social worker wants Stevie out, warning Diane, “Loving people doesn’t save them”, as Stevie and his colorful language kick off next door. Taking Stevie, managing a job, a new place to live, and home schooling her child seems an impossible challenge.
“You’re always in my head”, Stevie tells his mother, arms wrapped round each other like lovers, sharing quips, snipes, jokes and provocative repartee that shock passers by. Dolan’s cinematography surprises with its romantic slow motion close ups, moving from 1:1 to wide screen, capturing Stevie’s excitement in the intensity of his manic highs and the beauty of his skate boarding as he flies, contrasting the tough story line of Stevie’s ADHD and his mother’s struggle as a widow to keep him safe. She is left to pick up the pieces of his chaotic and terrifying behavior, a racist outburst with a cab driver, a violent attack on his mother after he steals her a necklace. A scene with Stevie twirling a shopping trolley like a skate board, then causing havoc in the traffic are captured as moments of beauty.
Their new neighbour Kyla comes to their aid after Stevie’s violent outburst turns murderous, and Diane has to hurt him in self-defence. “I’ll kill you all with your fucking meds!” Dolan confronts the painful reality of Stevie’s problems, his symptoms, the treatment, and the effects on Diane. Kyla (Suzanne Clément) is in her own kind of hell, taking time off teaching after developing a serious speech impediment, she is drawn in by their infectious warm relationship, their highs and laughter, their constant living in the moment. Kyla is quickly co-opted to home school Stevie so Diane can work, deaf to her family’s tentative calls from across the road. She finds refuge from her past, and from her partner and child, escaping to their close-knit threesome and joining their fun, recapturing a younger lighter self, singing and dancing to Celine Dion, as Dolan’s use of music captures these intense moments. Her stutter reappears as she crosses the road to her own place. Diane too can offload the trials of Steve’s disruptive, provoking attachment disorder, “You best scram cause it gets ugly!” she warns Kyla, “fasten your seat belt!”, Dolan’s depiction is enticing, it’s a scary ride you want to take, and Stevie seems irresistible.
“Gonna hold my dick while I piss too”, says Stevie as Diane comments on his masturbating, and there are no boundaries held. Kyla is able to hold a firm boundary; in a sexually provocative power struggle Stevie is reduced to a frightened child, perfectly describing the chasm between hyperactive teenager that masks Stevie’s deeply wounded troubled child. “You’re a prince babe”! mum tells Stevie, capturing the warm loved up moments of their adrenalised good times, just as her dead husband’s inventions gave them some high life turns before crashing into debt. The legacy from dad, “Fuck the past in the arse”, is an incentive to keep going forward.
Reality hits Diane with a law-suit for injuries Stevie inflicted in detention, so Kyla dolls her up for a date with a neighbour professing to help them. As the evening teeters on the brink of disaster, Dolan captures Stevie’s jealousy, “He just wants in your panties!”, as well as the bullying, danger and provocation awaiting Stevie out in the world, as he cannot contain his anger or make good decisions. Diane is up against it, “I just keep wiping the shit off the walls”, and we witness her maternal worry and her huge love for her son, mixed with her frustration of living with Stevie, and the problems his out of control behavior attracts.
There is no scene Dolan shrinks from, not the reality nor the fantasy which Diane dreams up for his unimaginable future. Stevie will stop at nothing to get Diane’s love and attention. “I’ll love you more and more” Diane tries to assure him, “You’ll be the one loving me less and less”. She describes the ‘natural order of things’ to a montage of graduations, girlfriends, and weddings, rites of passage to a Ludovico Einaudi track that only a black screen reminds us will be impossible. Handing Stevie to the powers that be has terrifying consequences, and the trigger for Kyla’s withdrawal. “You deserve better than a retard like me,” says Stevie.
The actors are powerful and well known in Dolan’s oeuvre; at only 26 he has 6 films under his belt. Anne Dorval is sublime in expressing her mental torture, fronting her decision, defending her pain and isolation, as she shows her likeness to Stevie in a childlike collapse when no one is there to see her pain. This is a remarkable and memorable film, and no doubt escaped much of the indie circuit for its difficult subject matter. Dolan explores the subject mater with compassion, avoiding the typical black-and-white story lines of the cold absent mother and the evil child. This is above all a love story of a woman struggling with her role, full of love for a son whose behavior she can no longer manage, and who is too much for her. That Diane is too much for Stevie is half the story as he struggles to separate, and she to maintain her role of mother as he pushes to ask for more, and to never let go. For a moment Diane and Kyla hold him together in an alternate happy family, but it requires Kyla’s neglect of her own family, in a borrowed triangle that finally requires a lot more than love.
Jacqueline Lucas Palmer, an integrative psychotherapist, is in private practice in North London and runs “A Return to Intimacy” workshops. With an MA in Film from the BFI, she has practiced photography and published poems and short stories on her path to becoming a psychotherapist.