It's been tempting for admiring film cognoscenti to label 25-year-old French Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan a fully grown talent, given his five features in the last five years.
Dolan's character studies revel in excess of feeling, and his new film "Mommy" is no different. But in tackling a strained, explosive mother-son relationship — the same subject as his whiny-yet-interesting debut film, "I Killed My Mother" — he seems to be demanding a career-growth gut check.
"Mommy," which won a prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, is nearly all gut, in fact, a two-hours-plus seesaw in which struggling widow with attitude Diane (Anne Dorval) is saddled with custody of her unstable 15-year-old Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) after he set fire to his care facility's cafeteria. Steve's bursts of manic devotion are as terrifying as his rages, which makes for a twin portrait in committedness: He should be, legally, but she is, emotionally. The question, tragically, is whose impulses will win out.
But while Dolan has engineered a legitimately tense set-up, it's a journey of screaming nadirs and, courtesy the homeschooling help offered by a kind-eyed stammering neighbor (Suzanne Clément), total exhilaration, with absolutely no modulation. "Mommy" may be the only movie to lure an overlapping audience of opera fans and reality TV addicts.
The result is something raw, as in uncooked or immature — not raw as in unflinching. It's a big distinction, because the glimmers of honesty — most notably Dorval's compelling maternal ferocity — hint at a film that might have trafficked in empathy rather than exhaustion. Pilon's Steve is so psychotic, he terrorizes the movie, not just the characters in it.
Dolan also unwisely pushes the claustrophobia with the film-school decision to shoot in a square (1:1) aspect ratio, which only occasionally overcomes feeling like a stunt. Their world is boxed in. Understood.
And yet, in its garishness, "Mommy" is a weirdly compelling overreach for this young filmmaker. It's the work of someone clearly passionate, if not disciplined yet, about his cinematic interests.
MPAA rating: R for language, sexual references, violence
Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West L.A.; Arclight Hollywood