Two of my favourite movies from last year are now being released in the US, and shortly in South Africa too. They happen to be somewhat linked by their titles, which follow on quite perfectly from each other if you’re a fan of wordplay, and you could say they both deal with identity and growing up, and so their subject matter is similar too. The style of each film is very different though, but they both use music, in fact at one point it becomes a focal moment of the film, to convey their own coming-of-age stories.
I watched both Girlhood and Mommy at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Both were highlights of the fest, together with the Oscar-nominated Foreign Language contender, Timbuktu.
Both films are made by French-speaking directors – Celine Sciamma is from France while Xavier Dolan is from Montreal, Canada and about a decade younger.
Girlhood , known in French as Bande de Filles, takes place in Paris, and starts off with a body-crashing football game, played by a group of girls, as we’re introduced to Marieme – aka “Vic” – played by Karidja Touré, and we begin to follow her as she tries to find her place in both her immediate surroundings and her own world. She is driven by the need to belong but also to stand out, and so we follow along as she makes her way through joining a gang, picking up some not-so-good habits, falling in love and trying on different appearances. As we follow her journey, we see the things she says yes to, but we also see the things she turns away from, which become just as much a part of her identity. Like Boyhood, we watch Marieme as she grows up – only not for 12 years. And for once, Marieme is not a white teenager like so many movies would have, and so we are allowed to see a different part of the experience of growing up. At the same time, the commonalities that defy race are brought a little more into sharper focus.
What I love so much is that the story unfolds against a backdrop of music that is perfectly placed to carry along the emotion of the time, and all those conflicting feelings that go along with it. From the opening of Light Asylum’s Dark Allies to Rihanna and the best use of Diamonds I’ve seen, Girlhood kept me engaged the whole way. French elector producer Jean-Baptisde de Laubier has created a synth-sonic soundtrack that helps maintain this.
In Mommy, the music is instantly recognisable and it forms as much a part of the story as the words spoken by the cast. The 3 main actors are Dolan’s regulars – Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clement, Antoine Olivier Pilon. Dorval plays Diane, a single mother who has to care for her troubled, prone-to-violent-outburts teenage son, Steve, played by Pilon. The story takes place in a time Dolan has created, where parents can entrust their children to the State if they’re not able to care for them. But their neighbour Clement) is drawn into their world, and ends up helping them, so it begins to seem like the mother won’t have to give up her son after all. At least that’s what it seems like…
At 25, Dolan already has created a reputation that truly precedes him. Five features in five years, each of which has played at Cannes, with his latest Mommy, being written, directed, produced and edited by the young filmmaker too. Oh, and he also translated the film to its English subtitles. After Toronto, I went on a Dolan binge, from watching his 2009 debut, I Killed My Mother to Lawrence Anyways, in which he also starred, and saw the ability he has to visually play with identity and mother-son relationships on screen. But I like that he’s not pretentious – he likes Celine Dion and he’s not afraid to show it!
Dolan shot Mommy using the unusual square aspect ratio of 1:1, but so effectively. Combining this with the soundtrack of songs selected to musically illustrate the story makes Mommy so compelling. There is a moment where the two elements come together so sweetly, it brought tears to my eyes and made me want to keep my headphones on for the rest of the day, playing Oasis’ Wonderwall over and over again.
Essential tracks (thank you, Internet)
Girlhood and Mommy are both currently showing in the US; Mommy opens in South Africa on February 20th.