Then boy, have I got a pair of films for you.
Julianne Moore is one of the most reliable actresses in Hollywood. I daresay she’s never turned in a bad, or even close to bad, performance, even when she’s in films that are beneath her talents. There was a period when she fell into that Kevin Spacey-esque rut of choosing prestige projects that seem like awards contenders, but end up flopping both creatively and commercially — projects like The Shipping News and Blindness, largely forgotten — which came after her heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But she was always perfectly good in them.
Her big breakout as a capital-A Actress was Boogie Nights, which earned her the first of four Oscar nominations. Shortly after, she was a dramatic dynamo in Magnolia, a comedic force to be reckoned with in The Big Lebowski, the only woman who could fill Jodie Foster’s shoes and not be laughed out of Hollywood in Hannibal, and a cog in unusual artistic experiments like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake. Her most recent Oscar nominations were both in 2002, as Best Supporting Actress in The Hours (even though she had more screen time than Best Actress winner Nicole Kidman) and Best Actress in Far From Heaven, which should have been a win.
It has been over a decade since Julianne Moore was an Academy Award nominee, which seems crazy when you look at her body of work over those years. Children Of Men. A Single Man. The Kids Are All Right. She was terrific in all of them. The Golden Globes and Emmys awarded her for playing Sarah Palin in Game Change, but the Academy has drastically undervalued her over the past decade. Recently, she’s been in quirky, small-scale fare like Don Jon and The English Teacher, though she reliably pops up in standard studio fare, too, turning in solid performances in everything from The Lost World: Jurassic Park to Non-Stop to the Carrie remake to the upcoming Hunger Games: Mockingjay. She lends such films a touch of class that they wouldn’t get from most other actresses. And though she’s been in a number of films that didn’t hit the mark, Moore herself always nails it.
Still Alice is, in a sense, Oscar bait — which is not a knock against it. It’s based on a book by Lisa Genova, who I’m sure did not write the novel with a mind to win Julianne Moore an Academy Award. It’s just the kind of story that makes so much sense to adapt into a movie, and if you’re going to adapt this story into a movie, you’re going to want to cast someone like Julianne Moore, and if you cast Julianne Moore in anything, she’s going to be fucking phenomenal. So there it is.
Moore plays Dr. Alice Howland, a brilliant linguist with an equally brilliant life. She lives in New York City. She is married to John, a fellow doctor who also works at Columbia. (Moore reunites with her 30 Rock paramour Alec Baldwin here, in a very different romance.) She has three extremely good-looking children — Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish), and Lydia (a very solid Kristen Stewart, finally shedding her Twilight pall and allowed to be a real actress again). Her two eldest are on the fast-track to success, while Lydia has moved to Los Angeles to be an actress, which Alice doesn’t so much approve of. Still, Alice’s problems are distinctly upper-middle-class problems, the kind you can disparagingly hashtag — until she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.It starts slowly. In the first scene, Alice is briefly confused at 50th birthday dinner, but it’s the sort of mistake anyone might make. Then she gets disoriented on a jog. Certain words slip her mind. Alice sees a neurologist who suspects that she could have Alzheimer’s before he says it aloud. Further tests confirm that. Worse news: Alice’s form of Alzheimer’s is hereditary, meaning there is a high likelihood that she will pass it on to her children.
Still Alice is a fairly by-the-numbers affair about a person struggling with an affliction. It touches on how Alice’s diagnosis affects her family, the highs and lows of her health, a sense of impending doom at the ultimate outcome. It could be a movie about cancer, AIDS, or any other illness, except in Alice’s case, this is a death of the mind rather than the body. That somehow makes Alice’s illness even more terrifying, and particularly ironic, because Alice is a brilliant women who has devoted her entire life to enriching her brain. And though we expect our bodies to betray us at a certain age, most of us hope that we will still be “ourselves” when we reach such a point. We can lose our bodies and still feel whole, but if we lose our minds, who are we?
The direction by Richard Glatzer and West Westmoreland finds a few competent ways to share the experience of gradually losing one’s faculties without doing anything particularly innovative or daring. Their script takes a pretty obvious course to the inevitable conclusion, but does so fairly elegantly. The story is heartbreaking and perfectly relatable, even if you’ve never known anyone with Alzheimer’s. Still Alice is a film about loss, the kinds of loss we will all face — the loss of a parent, and the loss of our own lives, and the loss of all the many things that have given our time on Earth meaning over the course of a handful of decades.
Yes, I spent a good portion of my time watching Still Alice choking on a sob, which is unusual given the number of pedestrian disease-du-jour films I’ve been subjected to over the years. This isn’t the sort of material that usually gets me, but this one did. Still Alice manages to find an angle that is just fresh enough, while still adhering to the usual tropes and tone we find in films about a person slowly dying. The bulk of the credit goes to Julianne Moore, who turns in another fearless, flawless performance as Alice. (Her triumphant moment, which involves a heartfelt speech made fairly late in her bran’s regression, makes remaining dry-eyed impossible.)
It’s hard to imagine who could beat out Moore for an Oscar this year, unless her curse continues: she’s always so reliably good that is hardly surprising to see her deliver an Academy Award-worthy turn, and awards often go to those who shock us with how good they can be. (Not always, of course, which is how Meryl Streep keeps getting nominated.) Her competition isn’t terribly formidable this year — most of the actresses up for this year’s race are either too new to pull off a win or already have one. Of course, it’s a bit early to the call race now, but if any of the four performance categories are to be called now, I’d say your safest bet was on Best Actress. (Moore might find herself again pulling double-nomination duty thanks to a supporting turn in David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars.)
Still Alice won’t be one of my very favorite films of this year, but I do want to see Julianne Moore get an Oscar. She’s earned it, dammit. Let’s give her an Oscar and then another Oscar, and ten more retroactive Oscars for all the years we missed.Unfortunately, I won’t be able to hold up Julianne Moore as my undisputed champion for favorite leading performance this year, because I also happened to catch Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, starring Anne Dorval as a mother who shares almost nothing in common with Dr. Alice Howland, except that they are both Going Through It. Unlike Julianne Moore, Anne Dorval is not an actress I am very familiar with, and not an actress who has narrowly missed several golden opportunities at the Oscars podium. She has, of course, never been nominated, and probably will remain unnominated this year, because Mommy is a Canadian film with dialogue in French that doesn’t feature any stars recognizable to U.S. audiences.
Its biggest star may be the man behind the camera, Xavier Dolan, an actor himself, though he does not appear in Mommy. He is a 25-year-old releasing his fifth feature; Mommy is likely his most mature and accomplished film to date, but they’ve all been well-received and buzzy on the indie/arthouse circuit. Mommy is Canada’s hopeful for a Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, and it stands a good chance at a nomination. (It was a big hit at Cannes.) It’s somewhat rare to see a non-English-speaking performance nominated by the Academy, though not unprecedented — some, like Marion Cotillard and Roberto Benigni, have even won. Dorval probably doesn’t have the clout it’ll take to go toe-to-toe with this year’s more likely nominees, Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon, Felicity Jones, Amy Adams, and Rosamund Pike, but stranger things have happened. Let’s just make this clear: it certainly won’t be because Dorval’s work here isn’t worthy of a nomination.In Mommy, Dorval plays Die, a woman many might dismiss as “white trash” — she’s loud, brash, and swears like a sailor, most often dressed provocatively, the kind of woman who’s son you’d expect to be found in a juvenile detention center. And he is. Steve is a deceptively cherubic fifteen-year-old prone to explosive fits of anger that often escalate violently. Die and Steve can’t help but push each other’s buttons, even when they know that doing so can and will result in destruction of property, serious injury, and neighborly intervention, as one memorable encounter in this film does. They love each other, but neither has enough self-control to avoid hurting the other, which only ends up hurting themselves in the long run. Mommy is as much about a sado-masochistic relationship as it is about a maternal one. The film begins just as mother and son are reunited following his exile from a program that was meant to help him.
What is Mommy about? That’s a tricky question to answer, because it is partially about Die and Steve’s fraught dynamic, but a third character becomes significant, too — that’s Kyle (Suzanne Clement), a neighbor who has developed a difficulty speaking. (She is also a mommy.) We get the sense that Kyla’s time away from her teaching career has been pretty damn boring, which is why she’s attracted to the odd pairing across the street, even though they’re so self-destructive and prone to outrageous domestic disturbances. Kyla becomes a tutor to Steve and a pal and a confidante to Die, which might unfold fairly predictably in a story by a less ambitious filmmaker, but Dolan doles out several narrative surprises. Die and Steve can’t help but wear their hearts on their sleeves — everything they feel practically bursts out of them — but Kyla is a wild card, and we’re never entirely certain what she’s thinking, how she’s feeling, or how her relationship with these two will develop.The base story of Mommy follows Die as she struggles with how to manage her own mess of a life with the considerable needs of her son, who seemingly can’t be left alone for very long without wreaking havoc. She hates the idea of institutionalizing him, but is there any other option? His rage will only intensify as he gets older; it’s practically a given that he’ll end up in prison at some point. There are moments in Mommy where Steve is terrifying, flying off the handle at the drop of a hat, uncontrollable and capable of almost anything. And yet there are also moments in which he is astoundingly sweet and couldn’t be more likable. Because of Steve, Die can neither work nor date, so we really do have to wonder if this mother would be better off without her offspring. There are moments when the two connect beautifully and seem like the only people in the world they could possibly belong with, and moments in which we’re hoping they break free from one another and end the cycle of misery they’re caught up in. These are real relationships. You take the good with the bad, and there’s no telling which side you’ll see at any given moment.
As good as Anne Dorval is, she’s boosted by two other stellar performances (who of course have even less of a shot at Oscar nominations). Antoine-Olivier Pilon is magnetic as Steve, running the gamut of human emotions. One moment he’s a wide-eyed innocent boy, the next he’s a moody, sexually frustrated teenager, the next he’s a man whose violent outrage could turn deadly. It’s reminiscent in many ways of Jack O’Connell’s rage-in-a-cage role in Starred Up, except that Pilon is given a little more range to play with, including a standout scene in which he, Kyla, and Die sing and dance along with “On Ne Change Pas” by Celine Dion. (More on that later.) Pilon’s range, as displayed here, is pretty incredible.And then there’s Suzanne Clement. In many moments, she’s barely able to get a single word out, but she’s so perfectly expressive that she doesn’t need to. So much goes unsaid by Kyla, yet by the end of this story we feel like we know everything about her. Yet Kyla shows a very different and totally unexpected side during one tutoring session, which is a showstopper as delivered by Clement.
But back to the music. Dolan’s music choices throughout are curious; I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing, and these songs have a different life in Canada than they’ve had in the states, or he’s deliberately chosen music from the late 90s and the early 2000s that feels played out. Most filmmakers consciously avoid songs that we associate with other movies (unless making a direct reference), or, worse, associate with a desire to gouge our eardrums out with a fork to avoid ever hearing again. But Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” is featured here, probably ironically, during an intense interaction between Kyla and Steve. That’s not too unusual, but other significant moments use Dido’s “White Flag” and Sarah Maclachlan’s “Building A Mystery” essentially as score. One beautiful sequence uses Counting Crows’ “Colorblind” (which will never not remind us of Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe gettin’ busy in Cruel Intentions, and is therefore almost unusable in cinema forever after). Mommy‘s “calm before the storm” montage is set to, of all things, Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” You could hardly find a more cliche choice.
The Mommy soundtrack could easily double as an album called Songs I’m Sick Of And Hope Never To Hear Again, or perhaps Now That’s What I Call Music: French-Canadian Auteur Who Grew Up In The 90s Edition. But in context, it works somehow. You have to admire Dolan’s boldness in just going for it; how many other Canadians would so shamelessly include a lip sync Celine freakin’ Dion? Mommy contains three or four moments that are practically musical numbers, and they’re absolutely indelible. I would have been perfectly content watching two hours of Xavier Dolan directing music videos for his favorite songs from adolescence, but there’s a lot more to Mommy than just visual and aural panache.Mommy eventually gets around to a climactic moment, but it’s slow-building and takes a lot of detours getting there. Its pleasures are more about watching three people interacting. The film is shot almost entirely in a very rare 1:1 aspect ratio. (That’s a square, for those who failed geometry.) It’s distracting at first; at times I desperately wanted to the screen to open up and show me more, as it is so tightly focused on these people’s faces. But that’s the point. The constrained frame forces us to watch these performances and only these performances. There’s little chance we’ll be distracted by anything in the background. Movies weren’t always as wide as they are now, so Dolan’s choice feels as much like a throwback as it does a modern millennial choice. The shots of these characters have an intimate, selfie-like quality. It’s like Instagram: The Movie.
Dolan has said that the aspect ratio wasn’t an artistic choice, but one that felt appropriate given how character-focused this drama is. Yet there are two moments in which the screen opens up for us, and I couldn’t help but notice that they were the two key moments that depict these people as free, unburdened by the constraints society and economics place on them. Being initially frustrated by the 1:1 only makes the first time the frame widens out all the more glorious. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s set to that soaring, still-good Oasis song.) And the second one, Mommy‘s emotional climax, is just devastating. (I wouldn’t want to spoil it here, but you’ll see what I mean when you see the movie.)That sums up Mommy by the end of it. The actors are so good that our sympathy sneaks up on us. Die and Steve are not people we initially expect we’ll connect with, but then, much like Kyla, we do. Life is funny that way. The people we spend time with are not necessarily the people we think we’d spend time with, or the people we’d choose to. You don’t choose your mother, and you don’t choose your son, and you sort of choose your friends, but only sort of. Life throws people together at random times, in unforeseen ways, sometimes for a limited time only. Location, circumstance, and happenstance bring people into our lives that would otherwise never be there.
If Mommy were exclusively focused on Die and Steve, then a late segment of this film wouldn’t have made it to the final cut. The friendship between Die and Kyla, two very different mothers, is equally important, and explored in a way that we don’t often see in a movie. Not many films examine the course of a friendship from beginning to end without some kind of artifice, like sex or death or a love triangle, wedging its way in to force things to come to a boil and make the “plot” happen. Mommy has dramatic moments, but ultimately it’s just about two kinds of relationships — the kind that are bonded in blood, from which we can never escape (even if we take great pains trying to), and the kind that we form by choice — and dissolve by choice, too.
If there were justice in cinema, all three of this film’s outstanding trio would be lauded for these performances, and Xavier Dolan would be recognized outside of the Foreign Film race, too. But that’s not going to happen, so if Julianne Moore finally getting her Oscar is the consolation prize, I’ll be perfectly content living in that world, too.