‘Mommy’ and ‘Violent’: Best of Canada at VIFF

These Canadian films are breathtaking, resonant


ViolentThe debut film from director Andrew Huculiak (the drummer and songwriter for the British Columbian band We Are The City), and the team at Amazing Factory Productions, Violent is a remarkable – not only because it’s Huculiak’s first feature, but also because it was made in Norway (when none of the filmmakers speak Norwegian), and won awards for Best B.C. and Best Canadian film at VIFF’s B.C. Spotlight gala. You can read our interview with the filmmakers here.

A (slight) sci-fi film that’s presented in a linear flashback sequence, Violent tells the story of Dagny, a young woman struggling to come to terms with her life. In that sense it’s about millennials – even as it eschews the trappings of a coming of age tale. The film explores the questions that we all ask: what’s the purpose of all this, is there a God, are we alone in the universe, do we fear death?

The film focuses around five segments, each with the title of a different person who is, at that point in time, significantly present in Dagny’s life. From family, friends, coworkers, and potential love interests, we are granted glimpses into her life, but the film’s form keeps us removed at a distance still, furthering the sense that we each live life alone. No matter who Dagny is with, she is ultimately reminded that she is alone. Whether or not that translates to loneliness is one of the questions the film explores.

The cinematography, clean and crisp, shows the stark beauty that catalyzes these sorts of questions, as does the soundtrack: much like the album of the same name, Violent’s score is heavily focused on ambient reverb sounds that ebb in and out. At times it overpowers the film itself, but in a way that reflects the thoughts and feelings of Dagny on the screen.

Punctuating our time with Dagny are cryptic, dream like sequences with floating objects, reverb heavy, humming soundtrack, and a voice over that repeats: “It feels like water, it feels like electricity, it sounds like a humming fridge.” This, combined with a few other subtle and not so subtle clues, fit together to explain the overarching plot and backdrop for the film that gives rhyme and reason for its structure.

While the film is far from perfect, it avoids many of the problems which plague debuts – especially on the festival circuit – and it cements the filmmakers as ones to watch closely in the coming years.


Mommy-by-xavier-dolan-cannes-posterAlready the fifth film from Xavier Dolan – who made his first at the age of 19, and is now only 25 – Mommy may be his first masterpiece. It’s already been building some buzz (both good and bad) because of the  aspect ratio in which it was shot (the proportion between width and height), 1:1 – which is common in still photography, but rarely used in cinema. The choice seems like a gimmick at first. This awkward square composition looks remarkably lacking on a big screen. But as the story unfolds, the 1:1 ratio becomes a stroke of genius.

Set in near-future Canada where a bill has been passed which allows parents to give up their children to state sanctioned wards, sans explanation or paperwork. Set against this troubling societal backdrop are the lives of Diane and her unstable but loving son Steve.

In many ways, Dolan’s film is about the limitations of love; a social worker says to Diane early on, “loving people doesn’t save them. Love has no say.” Diane works hard to not only homeschool Steve, but rein in his violent and unpredictable temperament, which complicates their lives and the lives of the people around them. The 1:1 ratio works to literally confine the characters in a box, or metaphorically as a photograph, and Dolan occasionally changes the ratio in ways that take your breath away.

Mommy doesn’t simply delve into the dynamic of mother and son. The film explores the boundaries of grief, hope, the blurred lines between love and responsibility, and the constant struggle to do what’s best for those around us and for ourselves. Mommy refuses to present itself in a way that makes it easy for us to hate Steve or sympathize with him.

There is rarely ever one distinctive theme which I can point to in a film and say “this is what it is all about” – but I would hazard to say that this is a film about moments. Or, at least, it revels in moments. Not in a carpe diem sense, but Mommy is very aware of how our memories, hopes, and dreams are formulated around specific moments in time – as if we create our own montages.

The film isn’t afraid to veer away from the present in order to give us the hopes and dreams that Diane has for her future life with her son, even as she realizes that it will never come to fruition; these dreams collide and mingle in a stunning montage that is neither sentimental nor haunting, but revels in the space between the two. It’s a rare film which is not only technically superb and pays great attention to form, but is also emotionally resonant and gripping.