'Mommy' Potently Explores Warzone of Raising Hostile Teens

Directed by: Xavier Dolan; Runtime: 139 minutes
Grade: B

French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan, who has already successfully touched on the topics of teenage homosexuality and gender transition before he had even turned 25, continues his streak of emotionally bold, open-wounded efforts with Mommy. His subject matter this time out veers away from the gender-oriented tempos of those from before, though, instead turning his eye to the struggles of a low-income single mother coping with the brash, unpredictable attitude of her teenage son and his time following a stint at an institution. Dolan takes familiar material and gives it an uncompromising edge, focused on the dread and confusion generated by the hostile interaction between the two as the mother struggles to gain a grip on the rapidly imploding situation. While the director teeters between realism and indulgent emotionality on both sides of the spectrum, the film's noble intentions, stunningly raw performances, and unique cinematographic perspective command a strong, intimate presence.

Three years have passed since Diane "Die" Despres (Anne Dorval) lost her husband, roughly the same amount of time since Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), her son, was placed in a facility -- one of many -- for his extreme, ADHD-diagnosed behavior. Among the limited (and more permanent) options remaining after an accident of her son's doing left another boy burned and disfigured, Die brings him back home to her modest living conditions, unsure of how she'll juggle her already-shaky employment situation and her son's volatile tendencies. She quickly learns that the situation isn't going to pan out without some help. Luckily, she discovers that her neighbor from across the street, Kyla (an enigmatic and entrancing Suzanne Clement), is a teacher on sabbatical, whose husband forces them to travel around due to his job. Despite her own emotional issues that have left her with a stutter, she elects to help Die and Steve out as they learn to cope with the situation, building a bond with the pair of them that suggests a mutual benefit, lending hope to the idea that they might be able to straighten Steve out.

Director Dolan strikes a compelling balance with Steve's attitude ... or, rather, an imbalance, between his alarming destructive tendencies and the slight, interpretive indications that he's possibly a decent kid underneath. Coupled with the unique choice to frame much of the film at a 1.1:1 ratio through the perceptive and poetic lens of Incendies cinematographer Andre Turpin, Dolan emphasizes the claustrophobic danger and desperation of Die's situation, where her love for her son suffers both verbal and physical abuse. It's a powerful cinematic sensation to see the ways in which she attempts to both assert authority and placate Steve during his tantrums, though his insistence on pushing buttons and intentionally dismantling Die's life teeters to a point of exaggeration. That's the way many real-life horror stories about kids with Steve's condition come across, though, and Dolan does an immensely credible job at using that volatility to deliver a poignant message about the situation's complexities.

At the center of Mommy's dramatic integrity stands Anne Dorval as Die, a fully realized and nuanced embodiment of a broke, distressed mother who's running low on options in how to get her son under control. Both hardness and compassion are conveyed through challenging sequences where she copes with the extremities of Steve's problems, relaxing when she has moments alone with Kyla and revealing the humorous personality that's suffocating under the surface of her battle with Steve. Antoine-Olivier Pilon had a daunting task ahead of him in projecting this character that's so far out of Die's -- or anybody's -- control yet also showing flashes of hope in his tenderness and construed childhood mannerisms, but he delivers that without missing a beat, creating an organic force of nature whom draws both palpable disdain and tentative sympathy for his powerlessness to change. The rawness and smartly-telegraphed vulgarity of Dolan's dialogue further elevates the pair's chemistry, providing them with consistent disheartening shifts in their relationship: challenge after challenge for Die's constitution.

While Mommy stays convincing through the nuances of its characters, especially in the delicate interpretation required to decipher Kyla's issues and her attachment to the troubled Despres clan, the story's tempo suffers from sudden shifts in Steve's development, both positive and negative. Most of the moments that work towards calming him down and focusing his energy happen off-screen, as if director Dolan doesn't want the audience to get their hopes up too high about his improvement. Instead, those unseen gaps tend to help Steve over humps that aren't completely believable without seeing how they play out, from progressing in his studies with Kyla to his ability -- and his desire -- to keep his cool while preparing meals. They tell instead of show, which is difficult to resolve due to the director's devoted eye for the things that make Steve such an erratic and self-destructive entity, resulting in some lenient storytelling in service of Dolan's desired emotional peaks and valleys.

Those grievances gradually weaken, though, once the destination that Mommy's headed comes into focus, veering away from the tidy, willfully encouraging resolutions found in the likes of, say, Good Will Hunting and Short Term 12. Together with inventive plays on aspect ratios to convey the fluctuating progress of the situation, Xavier Dolan assures the audience that he never intended for Die's journey to be a straightforward tale of a family's fall and rise, adapting a complex, real gradient of emotion and conflict to elements of Steve's behavior that they cannot run away from. The end result isn't easy to watch, open-ended and complex until the very end; however, it's also immensely rewarding when looking at its depiction of troubled kids and the parents whom have to learn how to adjust to their problems while retaining some semblance of optimism about their child's future. Dolan may take a few liberties with realism and emotional exploitation for the sake of getting those points across, but the end result certainly makes the heartrending journey one worth the risk.

Gosling Loses His Way in the Willful Abstractness of 'Lost River'

Directed by: Ryan Gosling; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: C

Drive and Blue Valentine actor Ryan Gosling can't be accused of not swinging for the fences in his directorial debut, Lost River. A dark allegorical fantasy set in what's rapidly approaching a modern American ghost town, the film explores poverty and monstrous authority in lawless surroundings through vivid surrealist images, suggestive of both Gosling's personal experience with other directors and pronounced artistic influences ranging from Italian Giallo to the work of David Lynch and Terrence Malick. Before attempting something so ambitious and figurative in his first time at bat, Gosling probably should've gotten his bearings behind the camera with more cogent screenwriting than his own. Despite the multihued, intricately-composed language of his visuals, Lost River ends up being a disjointed and hollow patchwork of enigmas that feel borrowed from other works instead of inspired by them, resulting in provocative sensations that service indulgent vignettes instead of a coherent, original fable with something clear to say.

Gosling shoots Lost River through a rundown, textured suburb of Detroit, hammering home the point that the film's eponymous town has been mostly vacated due to harsh conditions and a crumbling financial climate. A few stragglers remain, including a struggling single mother of two, Billy (Christina Hendricks), whose teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) strips dilapidated houses for metal and spends his downtime fixing up a car. Behind on their house payments, Billy's forced to resort to other means of income to appease bank/loan manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), guiding her to a bizarre and macabre burlesque that's emerged in the wake of the town's despondence. Bones, in the meantime, dodges the pursuits of the town's dangerously violent Bully (Matt Smith), while developing a relationship with the girl next door (Saoirse Ronan). Through her, Bones learns about the dark "spell" cast over their town, and how he might be able to remove the curse by exploring its submerged secrets.

With Gasper Noe's go-to cinematographer Benoit Debie guiding the point-of-view through imaginative angles and sobering perspectives on conversations, the haunting aesthetic tempo of Lost River can't be stressed enough. Abstractions involving half-underwater streetlamps and a doorway framed by a gargoyle's face form an expressive juxtaposition with weather-beaten houses and stores near collapse and crumbling walls scrawled with graffiti. Gosling plays a lot with moody lighting, too, especially surrounding Billy's new place of employment, namely in the hazy pink basement designed for more lascivious activities that finds a way of being both soothing and unsettling at the same time. It's never dull to look at, whatsoever, and the events that transpire throughout the setting -- peeled flesh, spreading fire, exploration through murky green water -- tap into some rather intuitive and raw cinematic sensations while attempting to blur the line between elevated reality and deceptive fantasy.

Whether it's to emphasize the despondent tone of the town or simply a matter of shallow characterization, the people maneuvering through the ruins of Lost River lack enough intriguing traits to bolster the dramatic dire-straits side of this parable. Lack of talent isn't to blame, either, since Gosling reached into his pool of talented co-stars and almost co-stars from past projects in assembling his cast: Christina Hendricks from Drive; Ben Mendelsohn and Eva Mendes from The Place Beyond the Pines; and Saoirse Ronan before Gosling exited The Lovely Bones. Suitable performances appear left and right as a result, including former Whovian Matt Smith as the intimidating and scissor-happy overlord of the vacant town, but they're ultimately filling out amorphous or on-the-nose characters surrounding Bones' indistinct shell of a personality. Minimalist features may have worked well for the rebels Gosling has played in the past, but they ultimately sink within Agents of SHIELD actor Iain De Caestecker, despite his burdened gazes and soft-spoken tone with Ronan's next-door curio, Rat.

Disappointingly, the narrative flow and dialogue of Lost River tend to be deliberately undefined and sporadic, with little connective tissue between the stories formed around the hopelessness and jeopardy of the abandoned town. Because of that, the film's obscure beauty demands to be processed on a scene-by-scene basis instead of as an interwoven, metaphorical fairytale, shining a light on the lack of innovation and overt admiration for other surrealist filmmakers inside Gosling's whimsical flourishes. He seems to want his 90-minute directorial debut to be his Valhalla Rising, his Blue Velvet, and his Enter the Void all in one shot: an ominous and visceral collage of metaphors and odes to the fall of the American dream, hurled against a canvas in hopes that they'll form an adult half-fantasy. Despite being vibrant and intended for something grander, it ends up being this decadent mess with a self-satisfied otherworldly streak, underscored by a bizarrely triumphant and cataclysmic end that overestimates one's investment in its equilibrium between what's practical and what's of the imagination.

Bleak 'These Final Hours' Straggles To Apocalyptic Salvation

Directed by: Zak Hilditch; Runtime: 87 minutes
Grade: C+

End-of-the-world movies can be grim enough without a story insisting on making every turn around the bend into a depressing, futile affair. It's one thing for post-apocalyptic movies to venture into that area, since there's always a hint of optimism that survival will be an option, but the approach of a sure-fire extinction event nixes that possibility as people scurry to do what they can with the remainder of their lives. Zak Hilditch's These Final Hours carries noble intentions in attempting to tell a story of an inebriated, self-focused man redeeming himself by aiding a young girl searching for her family before the end of days, and should be commended for not shying away from the dark, hedonistic side of the scenario. Regrettably, the audacious bleakness of the film ventures too close to a message of nihilism while straining credibility in how it stretches out the time left on the doomsday clock, accommodating for more doom and gloom instead of capably underscoring its messages about the preciousness of time.

A tightly-edited sequence reminiscent of 28 Days Later gets us up to speed on the anarchistic state in These Final Hours, beginning a few minutes after a meteor strikes Earth that creates a wave of fire and destruction which ultimately won't leave anything alive across the globe. With the meteor landing in the North Atlantic, the exterminating blaze won't arrive in Western Australia for another twelve hours, leaving the citizens of Perth to eke out as much living as they can before everything ends. After abandoning his kind, passionate mistress to go spend the remaining time with his actual girlfriend and attend a massive party, James -- a boozed-up, drugged-up guy with a destructive streak in his personal life -- hesitantly saves a young girl, Rose (Angourie Rice), from the clutches of two brutish would-be rapists exploiting the situation. With the hours remaining, he scrambles to help the girl find her father elsewhere in Perth before time runs out, unsure of what they'll find at any given moment in the hopeless, lawless city preparing for the end.

Mortality, hedonistic indulgence, and surrendering to the inevitable are all things that inherently follow the apocalyptic subgenre around, but they're used to some rather unsympathetic and downcast ends in These Final Hours. Director Hilditch's bravery to get his hands dirty with the motifs deserves some praise, yet it's frustrating to see the balance skewed to such an insistently and superficially tragic degree, where human decency and perseverance outside of James and Rose are in very short supply. Death and disappointment loom around every corner, both homicidal and suicidal, to which the film comes dangerously close to instilling the idea that hope and sacrifice might not be worth the effort due to the numerous dark possibilities that await in their search. What's the point of eating up time to seek out loved ones if "checking out ahead of time" is such a rampantly adopted alternative? One could argue that it might be part of that point, that Hilditch has crafted a cautionary tale about those tendencies, but it's difficult to embrace when the unpleasant drama does little to discourage the psychology of that idea.

As a radio host grimly updates on the global destruction and counts down the hours until the firestorm hits the city, a lot transpires in These Final Hours over the course of half a day, so much that it diminishes the drama's credibility. While it's tough to believe that only X number of hours pass between the events spread across the film's efficient 85-minute runtime, that's a secondary concern to James' willingness to use up all the time he's got left in a number of wild-goose chases, let alone the initial decision to leave his beloved, even-tempered mistress in the first place. Director Hilditch puts together unsettling images of doomsday lunatics and brazen hedonists throughout the road trips that certainly establishes a mood, yet they're constantly undermined by James' waffling grasp on the situation, notably during an overblown party sequence and the appearance of Sarah Snook's kooky, tripping maternal character. Since little gets revealed about James beyond his boozing, cheating, and family troubles, that could merely be part of his temperament, but there isn't enough character depth to work with either way.

These Final Hours isn't too concerned with how much of an understanding we've got of James as an individual, though, instead focused on the broad strokes of his redemption itself, reflecting on surrogate guardianship and the nature of humanity when there's no accounting for one's actions the next day. While Nathan Phillips delivers an admirably gruff, conflicted attitude as James that works as a fine dramatic bedrock, the heart and soul of the film rests in Angourie Rice's perceptive performance as Rose and how director Hilditch discovers in her authentic, wise youthful responses to something as enormous as the end of days. Despite any misgivings towards the story's willfully morose intentions, there's a haunting meaningfulness in Rose's complicated search to find her father just so they can be together when it's all over, arriving at a solemn but cathartic end to their journey. It's a shame, then, to see the rest of James' story of moral recovery go up in flames on a problematic and dispiriting note, where the difficulty in sympathizing with his regret becomes its most distinguishing trait among other pre-apocalyptic fables.