Content Warning: Suicide mention.
As we’re more than well aware, the earliest days of quarantine provided a much-needed period for personal growth, and a main factor in that process involved consuming lots of media. Xavier Dolan’s highly appraised Canadian drama, Mommy, was certainly no exception in my own life. I cursed myself as the credits rolled for not having watched it before – I do live here, after all! No matter how little my exposure to the wonders of cinema was at the time, every single aspect effortlessly rendered me speechless. In contrast to most fans, however, my new favourite story did not purely entail a turbulent relationship between fifteen-year-old Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) and his widowed working-class mother, Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval). It rather features the one less discussed: Die and her peculiar new neighbour, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). I saw two women raising a teenager together, bond over that experience, and ultimately change my life as a lesbian questioning if motherhood would someday embrace me.
The only other found family to stir my emotions on the topic was Once Upon a Time’s Emma Swan and Regina Mills, but the creators butchered their so-called ‘happy ending’ in favour of conventions. Pretty ironic for a show built on warped, modernised fairy tales, right? Anyhow, I felt defeated that two lead characters sharing a son and striking chemistry were easily denied an official relationship due to their gender. I was young and impressionable, thinking, If they can’t have it all, who am I to believe I can? Yet try as I might, my friends’ hopes for a doting husband and the endless lists of baby names still did not resonate with me. It repulsed me. The idea caused a panic seeing that everything (specifically my Catholic school education) suggested motherhood could never prevail outside a white picket fence. My surroundings and influences drilled this one-size-fits-all belief into my mind and it stuck. I was to accept motherhood as a culture exclusively belonging to straight women and co-existing with fatherhood. That was that until years later it wasn’t.
Apart from the odd acknowledgement, Die and Kyla formally meet in the aftermath of an argument gone wrong. Die begins struggling to maintain control; she faces unemployment just as a facility releases Steve (diagnosed with an attachment disorder and ADHD) for setting fire to a cafeteria and another boy. So when walking on eggshells backfires and his violence strikes at home, she creeps out of her closet to find Kyla treating the result of her self-defence. This scene alone, despite its unexpected randomness at first glance, perfectly encapsulates their dynamic going forward and thus serves as a critical turning point in Mommy.
Although much of Kyla’s past remains blank, a thank you dinner of sorts reveals she has been drifting through a bleak sabbatical among her husband and daughter. Up until a pair of strong personalities caught her attention, that is. “It’s my first night out since we moved here,” she confesses while fumbling with a cigarette. In celebration, they dance away to Céline Dion’s “On ne change pas” in the Després’ dimly lit kitchen. Kyla hesitates, Die and Steve voice encouragements, instantly she belongs. Her reserved nature and recently developed stammer give way to the joy, chaos, rage, and genuine love residing there, right across the street. These visceral emotions, which Dolan’s confining 1:1 aspect ratio heavily magnify, are what tether both women to something beyond basic black-and-white friendship.
But she adds, “We’re on transit between Québec and… God knows where. It depends on Patrick’s job.” Ah, the catch: a looming expiration date, a ticking time bomb. Merely a liminal space to the man. Nevertheless, the moments that ensue identify and challenge – if only temporarily – standards working against them as they become an ‘unconventional’ family of three in the domestic household.
The common enemy here (and universally) is heteronormativity. In Queer Rhetorical Agency: Questioning Narratives of Heteronormativity, David L. Wallace and Jonathan Alexander define it as various practices and institutions designed to “effectively divide people into two distinct categories – homo and hetero – and clearly privilege heterosexuality and what has come to be called the ‘nuclear family’ as the normative mode and venue of intimacy.” Such a rampant patriarchal tool then leaves them vulnerable to compulsory heterosexuality, which affects women of all sexualities to centre their lives around men whether they intend to or not. It explains many things; for instance, the prideful Diane’s attempt in seducing her slimy lawyer-neighbour after being served for Steve’s heinous actions. Or Kyla returning to a barren home night after night where an imbalanced, alienating marriage awaits. Unsurprisingly, the mothers learned it was essential in their womanhood to comply with the societal expectation of constantly seeking out or relying on male validation. It also happens to be the ‘safe’ option in an economy prone to exploiting women’s labour – especially considering the film is set in 2015 Québec.
And that is why it’s so rewarding when the frame expands to the traditional 1.85:1 widescreen and Steve shouts “Liberté!” amid a montage of the trio’s new and improved normal. The borders, in this case symbolising financial insecurity and social constructs (based on heteronormative ideology), are subverted by a collective euphoria and consequently expelled from power.
They participate in bike rides, hand-holding, and uncontrollable bouts of laughter in the absurd yet satisfying way that burns your lungs and makes your eyes water. They cook meals like it is the most natural thing in the world. Kyla homeschools Steve to keep him on track, whereas Die works as a house cleaner and literary translator to keep her head above water. Steve himself tapes their group selfie onto his bedroom wall and smiles in contentment. Overall, they bask in a breath of fresh air, and optimism blooms. Mommy’s portrayal of ‘trivial’ day-to-day things, all part of the parenting journey too often limited to heterosexual couples on-screen, now seemed a possibility within reach. The raw depth Dolan curated in Dorval and Clément’s characters gave me a tangible future to consider. Their roles fit the queer identity. Their roles fit me.
They even appear exempt from encounters with unwelcome outsiders if you disregard Kyla’s husband watching her run towards Die. Disapproval likely paints his face because Kyla willingly chooses to indulge in meaning found elsewhere over ‘housewife duties,’ so what does she care? She, along with Die, is riding an all-time high as Steve’s guardian and not anybody or anything can burst their little bubble. Except maybe that very expensive lawsuit. The truth of their situation crashes back down soon enough, quite literally closing in and destroying any morsel of stability.
We witness Die’s explosive anger, Steve’s short disappearance, and his suicide attempt during a family errand for school supplies. It’s a curveball to be handled delicately and it’s one the audience is emotionally manipulated into believing they overcome with flying colours. I was particularly ingenuous; if they’ve made it this far, what’s a bit more misfortune? Kyla technically has the option to exit at any given moment and remains unwavering at Die’s side to help bear some of the weight. She can’t offer money, nor can Die offer a stress-free utopia, but they are each other’s sole support system in this deteriorating reality. Yes, they teeter on the blurred line between platonic and romantic by dismissing feelings for what they may truly be, and that’s okay. I respected that their interactions largely revolve around their top priority: Steve.
That being said, Die finally lets her walls down in the famous dream sequence (unbeknownst to those holding onto hope). Delving into her subconscious, she envisions Kyla – wants Kyla – at Steve’s milestones, adopting a vivid “us against the world” mindset. They meet his first girlfriend, they celebrate his Juilliard acceptance, they attend his wedding. I completely bought it and ignored the “it’s too good to be true” that should have been repeatedly blaring in my head like an alarm. They, before all else, embark on an innocent road trip. False. Under the Canada Health Act, the fictional S-14 Bill actually lands Steve in the permanent care of a public hospital.
Thanks to YouTube and curiosity combined, the film’s deleted diner scene presented me with their reaction to Die’s regretted decision following the awry drop-off. I do not understand French, therefore I miss some context without subtitles, but their body language speaks for itself. The vulnerability and physical intimacy given from both parties visibly reads as a confirmation of love now tainted, perhaps also answering for why it never premiered on the big screen. Throughout Mommy, the usual limitation to one person per shot turns to the sounds in pop music and speech (e.g. voice inflection) as a means of enriching their connection in the world. Faces change frequently, meanwhile, voices possess the ability to transcend and invoke familiarity. Though poignant and beautiful, Die and Kyla’s embrace does not hold a candle to the queer subtext in their upcoming, and last, verbal exchange.
Grieving a living son is no longer this distant uncharted territory, but grappling with that together never occurs, either. A mutual sense of failure instead stares them straight in the eye – so much so that Kyla announces her impending move to Toronto. To her surprise, Diane feigns elation, is way over the top, and it deeply upsets Kyla. She grows serious, and in wanting to draw something honest from her, says, “I don’t want you to think these past few months didn’t mean anything to me… with you.” When Die continues deflecting, prattling on about drinks and pie, Kyla goes further: “I can’t just abandon my family.” Why feel the need to explain an obligation to a ‘friend’ unless more lies behind those words? Did she contemplate staying with somebody she undoubtedly considers family? It’s a confession disguised as a jab. It’s definitely a final nail in the coffin. So rather than start a fight they both know cannot be won, Die focuses on emotionally detaching herself in yet another act of self-preservation.
The foreshadowing of a woman’s sentiment fully sinks in once Die is left alone to unpack her heartbreak simmering beneath the surface. “Loving people doesn’t save them. Love has no say, unfortunately.” It was originally spoken in regards to the teenager and here is Kyla equally falling victim to a faraway fate severed from Die’s. In fact, her inevitable departure only reanimates and confirms her subordination as an ideal wife and mother engaging in patriarchal beliefs.
I eventually came to appreciate, in a way, the ambiguity of their relationship and its existence outside of being a major plot point. As Dolan stated in response to his rejection of the Cannes Festival’s Queer Palm, “What progress is there in attributing ghettoizing and ostracizing awards, which scream that films made by gays are gay films? It fragments people into small, hermetic communities. In my films there can be homosexuality, but it might also not be a topic.” Unlike that same ostracizing narrative in many queer and queer-coded films, Mommy doesn’t depict them as the unknown or the Other (a popular concept in the horror genre). Contrarily, the fleeting closeness between the women doesn’t even earn a grand reaction from themselves, Steve, or others. Just normalcy. Sure, their best efforts couldn’t beat oppressive and restrictive circumstances, and it sucks. But love isn’t immune to loss and sacrifice. A negative lens is cast on society, not the mothers, and that is simply it. In the end, Die and Kyla’s motherhood was unapologetically there. It was valid, it was important, and it stays with me.
by Antonia Silvana
Antonia (she/they) is a History student from Ontario, Canada, who spends far too much time analysing sapphic literature and cinema. Or anything female-centric. They love the great outdoors, Stevie Nicks, and the following masterpieces: Thelma & Louise, The Parent Trap (1998), Mädchen in Uniform (1958), and Suspiria (2018). You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.