I Killed My Mother (2009)

Written and directed by: Xavier Dolan 

IKilledMyMotherCoverFrom 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. 

Matthias & Maxime (2019)

Written and directed by: Xavier Dolan

Matthias_&_MaximeI had had very little exposure to Xavier Dolan when I went to see The Death and Life of John F. Donovan earlier this year. I sensed, nonetheless, that something about that film didn’t seem quite right: it felt more Brit-Hollywood than indie-auterial. Matthias and Maxime, by contrast, very much met my expectations, at least in the film’s opening scenes.

The first thing that’s apparent in Matthias & Maxime is Dolan’s voice. The audience is thrown right into the chaos of a group of young men hanging out a cottage. The dialogue is fast paced to the point that it is hard to process, but it nonetheless impresses via its realism and touches of humor. The film’s opening, however, peaks in quality when its purpose becomes apparent. Two members of the friend group, Matt (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) and Max (Dolan) are brought to the forefront and asked to kiss in a friend’s (Camille Feltonn) presumably low-prospect, but ambitiously envisioned short film. The scene serves as a hilarious homager to Jean-Luc Godard. Matt and Max are placed against a white background and dressed in solid red and blue shirts, and are then instructed to participate in an “impressionist-expressionist” film that speaks to the gender-sexuality-fluidity of the day.

Alas, this great scene does not hint at anything to come. While the film continues to have funny moments, including a bit with a young, over-the-top corporate lawyer (Beach Rats’s Harris Dickinson), and chaotic moments (a second party near the movie’s end), the bulk of the film is about loneliness, particularly Matt’s realization of how deeply he longs for Max. In a way, this choice was fairly resonant with me. I often find myself embarrassed by the fact that I’ll go to a single party, and not come back with any stories that would be notable to anyone but myself, yet feel nostalgic for and talk about the party for weeks if not months and years to come. Life is a series of highs and lows, and Dolan’s film captures that. Matt and Max’s lives are rarely as magical as they were that day at the cottage. Unfortunately, Dolan’s commitment to showing his characters’ day to day mundanity comes at the expense of viewers who might readily sacrifice this realism to see the magic continue.

Another important trait of Dolan’s dreary is realism is his decision to present Matt and Max’s stories as non-parallel. Prior to the film’s final scenes, we do not see Max brood for Matt in the way his friend does for him. Instead we watch Max stress out as he prepares to spend two years in Australia, while caring for a mother recovering from addiction (Anne Dorval). From a viewer’s standpoint the disjunct between Matt and Max’s stories is frustrating, especially when the Max’s-mother-subplot never really resolves itself. From a thematic standpoint, however, Dolan’s choice is very understandable. It is bad enough to know that Matt will long be burdened by the end of his magical moment(s) with Max: it’s worse to know that for Max this moment may have been less consequential

Dolan’s conceptualization of loneliness is resonant: it’s one that spoke strongly to me even though I’ve never struggled with repressed romantic urges in a way comparable to the film’s protagonists. What is frustrating about the film, however, is that its most entertaining moments are only tangentially related to its most thematically resonant ones. Dolan’s realism can be too real. I was particularly bothered by the film’s closing shot which shows Max being cheered up by the arrival of some supporting characters whose identities were never quite explained. Thematically, this moment makes sense: one way we can deal with day to day tragedies is by finding solace in other elements of our deeply complex lives. But as movies in the 8 ½ tradition have sought to explain, sometimes real life is not perfectly translatable to the big screen. Sometimes, it takes a crudely written stock character (ie the lawyer), to save a skillfully written movie.

It: Chapter Two (2019)

Directed by: Andy Muschietti Written by: Gary Dauberman

ItChapterTwoTeaserTwo years ago I saw and reviewed the first It film, observing the following:

 Perhaps another good way of selling It, is noting that it duplicates (without resembling) much of what’s effective about Harry Potter. It is a story of kids engaging in unlikely heroics against a magical villain, in the face of worse-than-Malfoy-esque bullying and adult incompetence and cruelty.

In short, while I may have taken issue with some of It’s plot decisions, I was largely captivated by what was essentially a depiction of kids fighting their monster-under-the-bed.

It: Chapter One really could have been a standalone movie. While its ending does lay a foundation for a sequel, said foundation was a dangerous one. It: Chapter Two was set up to be (and is) a rematch between heroes and a villain. Rematches may be great in the world of sport, and over the course of long fictional series (Sherlock Holmes stories, Batman cartoons, etc). But when it comes to standalone films/ brief series originality is necessary. It: Chapter 2‘s creators were thus pinned into a corner.

In fairness to the creators of the It movies, their films are based on an immensely long book (one I admittedly haven’t read). If one ignores the presence of the source, however, its hard to understand where Chapter Two’s creators thought their story could go, when its primary premise was just taking Chapter One’s characters, and aging them into adulthood.

The film’s opening scene is perhaps Chapter Two’s best justification. While the depiction of a homophobic hate crime (committed against a couple played by Taylor Frey and Québecois auteur Xavier Dolan) may not literally be the film’s best scene, it is one of Chapter Two‘s most meaningful moments. Whereas Chapter One depicted kids facing their fears in horrored-up, twentieth-century-Dickensian conditions, Chapter Two could have been about “the issues”: about how fear continues to haunt the film’s protagonists and their society through social and political strife even after they stop seeing dancing, killer clowns. In addition to that scene, this motif is arguably carried out through the adult versions of Beverly (Jessica Chastain) as she faces spousal abuse and Stanley as he deals with being a “coward” (Andy Bean). Overall, however, Chapter Two does not really subvert or expand upon Chapter One, it only revisits it.

My main gripes with Chapter One were its inclusion of more child-stars than it had time to develop and the film’s non-sequitorial use of a love-triangle. These are problems that Chapter Two resolves, but not in a satisfying manner. Two of the films seven protagonists kids, Stanley and Mike go underdeveloped in the first film, despite both being given compelling introductions (Mike in particular). A sequel could have proved a great chance to push either character into the spotlight. As an adult, Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) is in fact given a prominent role, but it is also a bland one; one that fails to build on the character’s initial depth. Adult Mike is essentially a stand in for the viewer and/or narrator, who wisely enables the other characters to self-actualize. Stanley meanwhile, is also painfully underused as an adult, though there’s a revelation in the film’s final scene that perhaps allows for Stanley’s weird writing to be interpreted as subversive exploration of vulnerability and the costs of hero narratives, rather than simple underdevelopment.

As for the love triangle issue (Chapter One presents Beth as crushing on both Ben and Bill), Chapter Two resolves it, but in a soft-bigoted manner. After setting viewers up to think one actor is Ben’s adult incarnation, the camera reveals that adult Ben is in fact a man (Jay Ryan) with a skinnier build (and a different hair color) than the original character, thus undermining the series’ own messaging about body stigma.

Another frustration I had with Chapter Two, was its failure to live up to the original film’s “thorough horror” quality. Chapter One was so terrifying because its characters had more to fear than Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard). Parents and bullies helped build Chapter One‘s world into a true nightmare, and no character played a bigger role in this feel than did school bully Henry Bowers (played in the sequel by Teach Grant). Because Chapter Two is not a new story, but a mere rematch, the logic of Pennywise and his aura of fear is known from the film’s start. Therefore, there’s no mystery when Henry shows up in the script. It’s obvious from the get go, he’s a throw in secondary villain, a problem that reaches its peak as Henry’s subplot is abruptly and arbitrarily ended.

            The worst part of It: Chapter Two, however, is also its best. Bill Hader features prominently in the movie as Richie Tozier (the character played by Finn Wolfhard as a kid). Richie, previously introduced as a vulgar, spunky, dork, is presented as growing into a shock comedian. The result is a character who feels like the star of a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch about grown up It kids, rather than an actual imagination of what the kids would be like as adults. An SNL veteran, Hader is excellent in this role, but the role’s existence itself is questionable. Whereas kid-Richie’s rudeness comes across as a coping mechanism, one that fits him into the film’s 80s-horror-aesthetic, adult-Richie’s remarks only distance him from his character’s reality. His scenes feel funny rather than scary. This is best illustrated in a scene in a Chinese restaurant: which both feels tonally out of place for the It saga, and is wonderfully entertaining. 

It: Chapter Two certainly has its moment. Its tragic final lesson about how bravery can take different forms certainly resonated with me, as did (adult-Bill) James McAvoy’s bike scenes. Overall, however, the film is a reminder that sequels require more than: 1) the mere passing of time, 2) the hiring of adult actors with varying degrees of uncanny resemblance to the kids they are “portraying”) and 3) the presence of a popular villain. Sequels, of course, will never be as original as their predecessors, but they need to be approached as if they truly are “new” films. It is only when they are written with such underlining inspiration, that sequels can really feel alive.  `

The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2019)

Directed by: Xavier Dolan Written by: Dolan and Jacob Tierney

The_Death_and_Life_of_John_F._Donovan            There are parallels between the lives of an up-and-coming child-star and an adult celebrity. This is the premise of 2018’s Vox Lux as well as 2019’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. In theory, these films tell two very different stories. Vox Lux looks at two stages in the same person’s life, whereas John F. Donovan is actually about two different people. Both films, however, are united in a struggle. How can you tell the stories of two “different” people at two different ages, while also pitching that those people are quintessentially the same?

Vox Lux, though a subtle, indie work, relies on a popular celebrity archetype to gets its message through: that celebrity turns people into cartoonish train-wrecks. In the case of that movie, I was not fully convinced that the mild-mannered-child and brash-adult stars were the same person. Nonetheless Vox Lux’s mainstream assumptions about the consequences of fame made the logical jump coherent enough.

In The Life and Death of John F. Donovan, Xavier Dolan arguably reverses the above formula, contrasting a charismatic child with a soft-spoken adult. The child, Rupert Turner (Jacob Tremblay/Ben Schnetzer as an adult), is being raised by a single mother, Sam (Natalie Portman). Sam has an acting background herself, but the story behind her career as well as that of her ex-partner are somewhat foggy.

Rupert admires the actor John F. Donovan (Kit Harrington), a choice which appears to be somewhat niche given that Donovan is presented as a not-yet A-List celebrity (he is on the verge of making it as he is about to cast in a superhero film). As a six-year old, Rupert began writing fan mail to Donovan. He got a response, but did not tell his mother. He and Donovan, would then secretly correspond for years.

There’s an almost surreal quality to Rupert’s storyline. His story is set in 2007, but his mother’s hairstyle and his British uniform-school (which aesthetically clashes with his and his mother’s American accents), give the impression that his story is of another age. Furthermore, he and his mother are “actors” yet their lives are presented as entirely mundane. And of course, there’s the fantastic premise that an actor actually diligently responded to a young fan’s letters (and that the young fan’s mother never noticed).

Donovan’s story, meanwhile, it not devoid of this out-of-time surreality. He has a tough, if obscured relationship with his family, led by his mother (Susan Sarandon), who live in a vaguely-vintage, wallpapered world. His overall dynamic, however, is more laid-back than Rupert’s. His scenes are slow, rendering them the main culprit for the film’s low Rotten Tomatoes Score. This is because. Unlike Vox Lox, which posits that unchecked childhood drama gives birth to celebrity firebrands, John F. Donovan argues that for misfits, coming of age, means suppressing what makes one different, even if that suppression is (arguably) more harmful than whatever bullying they would otherwise suffer.

Donovan and Rupert’s stories are both plagued by homophobia. For Rupert, it is an overt force embodied by school bullies, whereas for Donovan, it is an omnipresent spector. The centrality of homophobia to the film further contributes to its chronological-ambiguity. Did Dolan make a mistake in setting his film in the early 2000’s, a time when, yes, casual homophobic slurs and jokes were more common, but at which coming-out would not have been the career-ender that Donovan seemed to fear it was? I suppose the time-ambiguity of the film could have been a subtle-jab at straight viewers, making the same judgement that I am now. Perhaps for a lot of people struggling with homophobia (Xavier Dolan included), the 2000s and the 1950s really didn’t feel as different as some people would be inclined to say they were.

John F. Donovan makes use of the trope of child-who-is-more-emotionally-intelligenty-than-his-elders-and-unsubtley-aware-of-it, as well as low-key Deus Ex Machina figure played by Michael Gambon. Yet if The Life and Death of John F. Donovan has a fatal sin, it’s not its occasional retreats to saccharine cliché, but its general air of subtlety. Dolan and Jacob Tierney’s screenplay tells a story about how we can both deeply-connect-to and not-really-know somebody. They told a story of how people can suffer from social pressures that may or may not be entirely grounded in contemporary reality. Their story was of how subtle things can have a cataclysmic effects. The result was a screenplay that falls in an unfortunate gap between being entertainingly-dramatic and provocatively subtle. The Life and Death of John F. Donovan falls short as a piece of entertainment, but it nonetheless resonates as a poignant meditation on emulation, bigotry and loneliness.