One of the first shots in "I Killed My Mother" ("J'ai Tue Ma Mere"), Quebec-born Xavier Dolan's 2009 directorial debut, is a close-up of the titular character's mouth piggishly chewing her breakfast, as juice from an orange bleeds down her chin and gobs of cream cheese smear the edges of her lips.
This serves as a fitting introductory image to a film that examines the frustrations of intimacy, chronicling the tumultuous relationship between a gay high school student and his mother.
2.5 stars = Average
Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval.
No MPAA rating but contains sexual content and strong language.
The film centers on Hubert Minel (Mr. Dolan, who also is credited as a writer), a bright but troubled 16-year-old who lives with his single mother, Chantale Lemming (artfully rendered by the veteran Quebecois actress Anne Dorval). Hubert's father left when his son was young -- "because fathering wasn't his cup of tea," Chantale says bitterly -- and Hubert rarely sees him.
The relationship between mother and son is a hard one, as Hubert attempts to manage his budding sexuality (hidden from his family) with his already deep resentment toward his mother.
Chantale, for her part, wields harsh ultimatums and guilt-inducing cajolery with an equally adept hand.
Throughout the rest of the film, the battle rages between these two, as each swings back and forth from tantrum to repentance, influenced by both a sense of familial duty to the other and a mutual animosity.
Mr. Dolan, who was 20 when the film was released, conveys the myriad emotions tied up in this conflict with a flashy bag of cinematic tricks. The camera focuses on Hubert's face, livid with rage, as he flings his mother's plates to the floor in slow motion; surreal dream sequences illustrate the protagonist's thoughts; stylish montages convey emotions ranging from wrath to ecstasy.
This all makes for a superficially powerful, quite watchable film. Where "I Killed My Mother" falls short, however, is in backing up its sleek exterior with genuinely relatable thematic substance.
As powerfully wrought as Hubert's varyingly brooding, wrathful and sentimental moods might be, one is left wondering what actually lies behind them. It's true, the gradual revelation of Hubert's homosexuality might be a source of this familial strife.
But it is only mutually acknowledged toward the end of the film, after plenty of Mr. Dolan's mother-son theatrics have splattered themselves inexplicably across the screen. Another explanation is, quite simply, hormones -- but is this really a worthy topic for a movie?
A film described by its writer-director as at least somewhat autobiographical, it seems like Mr. Dolan, who is gay, is less interested in his fictional counterpart's journey out of the closet than he is in his vague, but powerful resentment of his mother. And if the film is any indication, it's one Mr. Dolan has yet to truly understand.
In a conversation toward the end of the film, Hubert describes his mother to his classmate, Eric: "She's selfish and ruins my life."
"What's your life?" Eric replies.
Hubert's befuddled inability to answer this question is telling.
In French with English subtitles. Opens Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.
Lee Purvey: firstname.lastname@example.org.