Interview: Xavier Dolan, Director Of 'Mommy' In his award-winning film, Xavier Dolan, 25, tackles the relationship between a single mom and her troubled son. He says, "I feel like I knew this kid. ... He's just the worst version of who I was."

At Its Core, Warped Family Drama 'Mommy' Is 'A Story Of Love'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan's new film "Mommy" took a top prize at Cannes last year - an achievement for any director, let alone one who is 25 years old. The mommy in the movie is Diane, Di for short, a fast-talking hard-drinking widow. She's trying to get back on her feet when her teenage son, Steve, is kicked out of yet another psychiatric institution. Steve moves back home leaving both Di and the audience on edge waiting for his next uncontrollable and, usually violent, emotional outburst. We spoke with Dolan about his film. And he describes Steve, the troubled young man at the heart of the story.

XAVIER DOLAN: We're not talking about an average hyperactive kid, you know, whom you can give pills to and then have him, you know, succeed and have A's at school and everything. We're talking about a way more troubled child who has trouble of attachment which is directly linked to the mother, the relationship he has with her. And the fact that all of his gestures and behaviors and all that he purports to is actually find the proof or the confirmation that the love of his mother for him is as big as the love he feels for her. And seeking those questions will lead him to throw and thrust himself in the, you know, most horrible chasms.

MARTIN: Did you have conversation with families who have a child who suffers from something like this?

DOLAN: No. I - not that I was lazy, but I feel like I knew this kid. You know? He's just the worst version of who I was. And I was very, very much violent as a kid. And then I just try to use my imagination and understand, you know, this kid's distress and his, you know, his worst fears and his anxieties and how worried he was that his mother would stop loving him or would love someone else even more.

MARTIN: Did you suffer from those kinds of doubts when you were a child?

DOLAN: No. No. It's not my mother. It's not my story. I can relate to, you know, Steve's angst and anger. I was brought up about two blocks away from where we shot this film. So Di and Steve were my neighbors. There were on the bus. They were at the - you know, at the supermarket. They were everywhere. And they're made of thousands of elements that I've been collecting, I guess, from people from my childhood.

MARTIN: Kind of sounds like it might be a little bit of your story.

DOLAN: But it's not. It's not. I wasn't mentally ill. I wasn't placed in institutions. I don't have that rapport with my mother. My mother is not Di. I can relate to them, but it is not autobiographical.

MARTIN: So I ordinarily wouldn't point someone's age out, but this is, quite frankly, a film that you would expect to have been made by someone who has lived far longer than you have. You're only 25.

DOLAN: Yeah. But, you know, age is purely factual. I mean, I know how old am, but I've been living a quite idiosyncratic youth, I guess. I can't really give you an answer or an explanation, but I just cannot wait to be whatever age feels - not appropriate, but more of a...

MARTIN: To the point where people stop asking you about it.

DOLAN: No, it's not about - no, no because I don't mind addressing these things, but I just don't have a satisfying answer. I've been surrounded by adults my entire life, and I'd seek their company when I was a kid. I was a pretty lonely child and despicable child to - with other children. I had a problem with authority. I - yeah, so it's been an irregular childhood. But I'm grateful for that sort of alternative path.

MARTIN: Let's talk more about these characters that you've created in this film. There are several very intense scenes throughout the movie. And one in particular I want to talk about - it is when Steve is having a bad episode, and he goes after his mom. And she has to lock herself in another room. He is exploded. This is the worst we ever see him. What was that scene like to shoot?

DOLAN: Those are tricky scenes because they are fun for actors, as much as this may sound surprising. Screaming and shouting and insulting people and spitting and pounding on walls and jumping and being all over the place - and it's not, you know, like going down the rabbit hole in a silent way, crying, looking through a window where you've got to, you know, it's - anger is fuel. But for Steve, I remember I was telling him, you know, keep breathing and trying to - you know, this kid has been told by people all his life to probably breathe and try to calm down and find his peace. So it was really about Steve being like (breathing). And I don't really direct the scene as a director, I direct it as an actor. This is the angle I love to approach scenes with as opposed to, oh, yeah, we're going to shoot with that lens. You know, all of that collapses if the acting choices are off.

MARTIN: There's also, though, the physical outbursts that you're afraid of as a viewer - there's also an uncomfortable sexuality about the film. There is a sexual undercurrent to their relationship, to how he interacts with his mom.

DOLAN: Yeah. Steve doesn't understand boundaries and doesn't know any limits. So actually when I was in France promoting the film a young man from the audience raised his hand in a Q&A and asked, all the fathers are always gone or dead or absent in your films. And then he asked is Steve the first little step that you've taken towards incorporating father figures in your films because he's really trying to protect Die. And he's trying to, you know, pay things for her. Well, pay, I mean, steal. But for him that's, you know, provide his mother with things and the things that she needs. And I think it's true. I think that the thing about Steve is that, yes, there is - he's the son, but he thinks of himself as his mother's lover.

MARTIN: I don't even know what to say after that. (Laughter).

DOLAN: But, you know, it's - all of this lies underneath. You know, on the surface what people will really, I guess, see and feel is a story that isn't that warped. It's just the story of love. And we didn't explore the sexual tension, but I'm glad you've noticed that it is there.

MARTIN: Your previous film which was called "I Killed My Mother" also had some autobiographical notes in it. Clearly this is a relationship - that of a son and a mother that compels you artistically. There's something in there that you keep digging at. Has this film changed in any way the way you reflect back on your own experience with your mom?

DOLAN: No. I understand the relationship that I have with my mom. I am not seeking answers through, you know, writing about the mother and son bond. It's just that mother figures inspire me. They are rich characters, and they are a solid foundation to start writing about and to, you know, write a story on.

Mothers have sacrificed dreams and projects and ideas and maybe even values and a part of themselves to become moms. And being a mother is just a status or a role. It is not who you are. It is what you do for, you know, anyway. Through these mothers and women, I can express many things and claim many things and fight my fights, awkwardly, as a young man in his twenties. I know it's a bit of a stretch, but it's been like this. And it will be like this forever.

MARTIN: Xavier Dolan - his latest film is called "Mommy." Thanks so much for talking with us, Xavier.

DOLAN: Thank you so much for your questions.

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