Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. Canada, 2014. Les Films Séville, Metafilms, Sons of Manual, Téléfilm Canada, Société de Développement des Entreprises Culturelles, Quebec Film and Television Tax Credit, Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit, Radio Canada, Super Écran, ARTV. Screenplay by Xavier Dolan. Cinematography by Andre Turpin. Produced by Xavier Dolan, Nancy Grant. Music by Noia. Production Design by Colombe Raby. Costume Design by Xavier Dolan. Film Editing by Xavier Dolan. Cannes Film Festival 2014. Independent Spirit Awards 2014. Online Film Critics Awards 2014. Toronto International Film Festival 2014.
The film opens with information about its taking place in a fictional Canada in which the Ministry of Health has made it legal for parents of emotionally disturbed children to institutionalize them at the government’s expense without any legal ramifications. This is the first indication that filmmaking wunderkind Xavier Dolan is slightly out of touch with the world he comes from if he imagines a Health Canada that is likely to increase its services and spending in the near future. We are then plunged into the story of a working-class Montreal mother (Anne Dorval) and her ADHD-afflicted son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who has been expelled from the support centre he has been living in due to excessively violent behavior. Dorval has the option of taking advantage of the newly passed law but decides, instead, to move somewhere new and homeschool him, which is a project that fails from the get-go considering that she tends to be the main instigator of his worst moments. Fortunately, across the street resides a sensitive and sweet teacher (Suzanne Clément) who is on sabbatical thanks to a recent affliction of speech problems that are likely the result of a stress-related nervous breakdown. The interactions between these three show progress in fits and starts in terms of getting through to the highly volatile young man, but it’s one step forward and two steps back just about every time a new method of communication is attempted and, eventually, it seems possible that both of these women will give up on him. Dolan’s strong work, which won him the Jury Prize at Cannes alongside Jean-Luc Godard, is notable for thrilling performances that make real people out of what could easily be trashy stereotypes, though there is also the sense that they exist based on concepts of working-class life and not specific knowledge; their personalities are precise but their situations are vague, with complications in the plot frequently presented and never properly resolved. It’s not difficult to sympathize with even the highly challenging protagonist at the centre, but it is hard to know if Dolan actually cares about these people, who are all pain but no vulnerability, or is merely exploiting their lives to show off his prowess as the enfant terrible of misery cinema. The film is non-stop screaming for two and a half hours, mainly by characters completely lacking in any manner of self-awareness or any desire to develop or improve, and with very little humour and absolutely no down time between the gratuitous indulgence of high-drama conflicts, a film that is nothing but climaxes gets to be more than wearing. That said it is never less than intelligently rendered (even with its emphasis on glorious montage sequences), and the moments that it pulls off with exceptional skill (Clement losing her temper on Pilon, for example) land beautifully and last. The perspective of the young man’s frustration and rage is not trite in presentation, and its being filmed in a boxed-in ratio of 1:1, which spreads out at effective moments, definitely helps give as deep an understanding of his inner life as the dialogue and direction do. Just don’t be surprised if you get everything you need out of it well before it is over.