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October 24, 2010

VTIFF Report: 'I Killed My Mother'

Killed-my-mother I saw this movie Saturday night at the Vermont International Film Festival. Producer Carole Mondello came down from Montréal to talk to us, but only a handful of people showed up. Maybe the movie's title spooked them.

Shouldn't have. While you may be expecting a heavy metal song or a '60s pulp exploitation flick, J'ai tué ma mère has a completely different tone. SPOILER AHEAD: The film's teenage hero, Hubert Minel (played by writer-director Xavier Dolan, pictured) doesn't murder his mère, except metaphorically.

Given a school assignment to interview his parents about their careers, Hubert tells the teacher he never sees his dad (which is true) and his mom is deceased (which isn't). When Mom finds out, she shows up at school in a leopard-print coat with some choice words for him. Like many scenes in the movie, this leads to a confrontation that's painful, but also funny.

I Killed My Mother was made two hours away in Montréal, but it hasn't played in Vermont theaters, and as far as I can tell, it's not available on DVD in the U.S. It hasn't been reviewed much, either. I found out about it from festival coverage at the Onion AV Club, where one critic said, "the film makes you feel optimistic about the next generation."

Mike D'Angelo of the AV Club was even more enthusiastic when he reviewed Dolan's second film (yes, there's already another one) at Cannes last spring:

To say that Xavier Dolan’s sophomore effort lives up to expectations won’t mean much to most of you, since his terrific debut, I Killed My Mother, which swept the awards in the Directors’ Fortnight here last year, has yet to open in the States. So just trust me: This French-Canadian kid (he turned 21 in March) is a born filmmaker, with the potential for greatness once he manages to shake off his many influences and develop a style of his own.

I trust the AV Club above all other online movie sources, so I had to check this out.

As of today, you have two more chances to see this movie at VTIFF: Tuesday, October 26 at 3:45 p.m. and Thursday, October 28, at 6:30 p.m.

I recommend I Killed My Mother highly, though not to anyone who has zero tolerance for movies about family arguments or angsty gay teens who write poetry. If that doesn't describe you, here are some reasons to go:

1. The angsty, poetry-writing teen totally makes fun of himself. Considering how seriously most adolescents take themselves, Dolan's screenplay (which he wrote at 17, according to Mondello) is pretty astounding.

This is a low-budget film, and it shows in the lighting. But the one thing money can't buy is a good script. The bickering between Hubert and his mom feels genuine, and not in that hit-or-miss improv way. It's lively writing, part comedy and part drama, that's based in a sense of the characters as real people. If American family sitcoms were like this, I'd watch them.

2. Dolan has the charisma of the young Johnny Depp, as well as the hair. Assuming he speaks English and can be pulled away from directing, I can imagine him becoming a big star in Hollywood. (I said the same thing about Ewan McGregor when he popped up in Shallow Grave, so my future-star prognostications occasionally pan out.)

3. Before I saw this, I described it as a "coming-out story," but it really isn't, or not in any standard way. It's about a guy who happens to be gay and his relationship with his mom. Hubert seems comfortable with his sexuality -- he just hasn't bothered to mention it to the nosiest person in his life, which I think anyone who's been a teen can appreciate. Somehow the gigantic River Phoenix poster in his room fails to tip his mom off. But when she does find out, her reaction is no more clichéd than the rest of the story.

4. Anne Dorval, a veteran Québec TV actress, portrays Mommie Dearest. One review I read made me think the mother would be a one-dimensional petit-bourgeois gorgon. Not so. It's true that Hubert hates his mom for many silly and snobby reasons: She chews too loudly; she fills the living-room with animal prints; she visits tanning booths; she isn't cool like his boyfriend's mom.

But there's more to her, partly because Dorval is a gorgeous woman and a witty performer. The mom gives as good as she gets in every argument, mocking her son's theatrics. She also has a rant at the end of the movie that's a ferocious answer to every snide comment TV pundits have made about single mothers and their inability to raise sons.

5. It's a fun film to look at. The costumes! The homes full of tacky knick-knacks! According to Mondello, Dolan picked out most of the costumes himself (at thrift stores), and the knick-knacks belong to his actual mother. If you're wondering how Dolan's mom reacted to the film ... well, she has seen it. But she declines to speak with the press. Mondello said with a chuckle that if her own son had made this movie, it might have gotten a sequel called J'ai tué mon fils.

6. If you listen closely, you'll learn that Québecois teens sprinkle their conversation with useful English phrases such as "Fuck you!" and "redneck." That info could come in handy next time you visit Montréal.

One reason to do that might be to see Dolan's second movie, Les Amours imaginaires, but you'd need a great ear for Québecois French. Lacking that, I will wait to see it here under its lame English title, Heartbeats. Here's hoping we get a chance.

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