I Killed My Mother

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/27/10 12:13:11

"More impressively: she didn't kill her son."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

So, how important is liking a movie's main character to your enjoyment of the movie? That's a question worth asking yourself before sitting down to "I Killed My Mother", because while it's not hard to find nice things to say about writer/director/star Xavier Dolan's first film even without mentioning his tender age, the character he wrote for himself is quite the obnoxious little bastard, and knowing that this film is semi-autobiographical may do more to hurt one's impression of the filmmaker than help one's impression of the film.

Hubert Minel (Xavier Dolan) is sixteen, gay, and fights with his mother Chantale (Anne Dorval) at the drop of a hat - and, honestly, the hat does not actually need to fall. Chantale and Hubert's father are long-divorced (Minel père just didn't see himself as the parenting type) and Chantale is, in Hubert's eyes, hopelessly bourgeois. His life really isn't so bad - he's a fairly talented artist who has a nice boyfriend in Antonin (François Arnaud) and an encouraging teacher in Julie (Suzanne Clément), and he thinks he's figured out a way to make things work - he should get an apartment of his own with the money his grandmother has left him in trust. The alternate housing arrangement she comes up with pleases him rather less.

Suffice it to say, Hubert has some growing up to do, and the folks around him don't always make it easy. Stepping back from the movie and looking at it as a whole, that progression of the character is handled rather well. Dolan isn't subtle with how he shows us that Hubert does, in fact, care for his mother despite conflicting feelings (the video diary entry is as close to the writer just handing character information to an audience as you can get, and having it be found is a clumsy plot device), but that fits with the character's tendency to be overdramatic. And we clearly see that said tendency comes from maman; neither she nor any of the supporting characters are an easy-to-emulate example of mature adulthood.

Xavier Dolan and Anne Dorval give fine performances as the two main players in this drama. There's familiarity and tension between them that seems to have both been there forever but is also new enough to leave them at their wits' ends. Dorval shows us Chantale as a woman who still, after sixteen years, doesn't always have the most accurate maternal instincts. She continually nails Chantale going from almost sly and funny in her responses to Hubert to frustrated beyond the ability to handle the situation well. It's a performance that earns sympathy with caveats. To a certain extent, the same is true of Dolan's performance, although the caveats are initially almost overwhelming. It's a fine evocation of a kid who is angered by almost everything but only has one target to vent it at, and serves as a fine depiction of a reasonably intelligent person decidedly lacking in emotional maturity. Considering that the story is at least somewhat autobiographical, it's impressive that Dolan opts to play Hubert as so unsympathetic.

And, sometimes, the fact that Hubert Minel is a jackass makes Xavier Dolan a little harder to take. Some of his devices seem pretentious - the black-and-white video diaries mentioned above, or how he'll occasionally do clever things in curde ways. Witness the montages he occasionally uses for scene breaks, or how a scene of Hubert and Chantale speaking at a dinner table goes from a two-shot to cuts of each pressed against the edge of the screen. A more practiced filmmaker may communicate a sense of separation there, while Dolan communicates that he really wants to communicate a sense of separation. He's at least ambitious in the right direction, though, and for a kid just out of high school, he's quite good at directing actors and approaching rather recent experiences with maturity.

A little bit of acknowledging your faults can go a long way, though. "I Killed My Mother" can be as trying as its main character, the sort of independent movie best experienced in a theater not because impressive cinematography requires the big screen, but because it's a lot harder to quit on the movie before the full picture comes into focus. It's ultimately rewarding, but as in raising a gifted but difficult teenager, the rewards come after a fair amount of annoyance.

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