Written and directed by: Xavier Dolan
From the bawdy world of Dazed and Confused to the pseudo-innocence of Peggy Sue Got Married, there’s a common feel to high-school movies. The characters cruise around in their cars and live in a world of their own. Adults are often present and influential, but there is never any doubt that the central universe is that of the adolescents.
Then-debuting-auteur Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother, is instantly seductive for a number of reasons. For one, in true arthouse fashion, it finds beauty in the mundane, swinging by school and house walls in its scenes, and accenting colorful objects in its stills. It also employs the ever enjoyable tropes of its protagonist,Hubert (Dolan), smoking and philosophizing in black and white.
The film’s chief appeal, however, is its effective framing of what it means to be an adolescent. The typical, free-running, high school movie protagonist is depicted as existing in the world as an adult, even as they still have the mind of a child. Hubert, by contrast, has quite the reflective mind, but, like many sixteen year-olds, he has nothing resembling an adult’s freedom.
The film’s title refers to a subtler event that takes place early in its runtime. Overall, the story explores Hubert’s relationship to his mother (Anne Dorval). The relationship is obviously not a pleasant one, but its true nature is never quite made clear. Hubert is prone to bursts of yelling, whereas his mother is always unsettlingly calm. While audiences are never forced to doubt Hubert’s account of events (that his mother is unavailable, inconsistent and manipulative), we are encouraged not to trust them either.
This ambiguity means that I Killed My Mother captures a nuance about parent-child relationships that many films often miss. As a smart, almost adult, Hubert is on the one hand, of course capable of intellectually and morally criticizing his mother’s methods. But on the other hand, the parent-child relationship is necessarily one of trust in the elder. Despite Hubert’s threats that he will cut off ties with his mother, viewers will understand that this cannot be true.
While much of the conflict between Hubert and his mother is rooted either in specific, small instances or in their backstory, Hubert’s semi-closeted gayness is also an important dynamic in the relationship. Is Hubert’s mother homophobic, and to what degree? I Killed My Mother intentionally underexplores the question, because what matters is not whether the answer to question is yes, but simply that the spectre of the issue is alive in Hubert’s angsty conscience.
I Killed My Mother is great for what it is not. It presents its titular teenager as a teenager, not an adult. It presents him as being able to be critical of his parents, without giving into the Hollywood trope of presenting children (much younger than Hubert) of being in a position to effectively lecture their parents on obvious moral shortcomings. But I Killed My Mother is also great for what it is: for its beautiful shots be they of a greasy spoon with a “special aura”, or paint-drenched romance; and its plot structure, which seems to come to resolution once and then finds satisfying drama again. Hubert’s relationship with his mother is hopefully not one shared by many, but I suspect the little bit of relatable truth in it will prove a present surprise for viewers of all kinds.