Life imitates art imitates life, so you begin your essay like this: Like Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, my mother (Ruby Ann “Bianang” Panaligan) was in a car crash. And just like Diane “Die” Després, she opened the door—with force, as it was smashed upon impact—and walked away. You like to think you’re the film’s Steve in this analogy: the problem child who’s both a charm and a challenge, a good kid whose inner life their mother can’t quite fully grasp. It’s easy to feel like it’s you and her against the world, two firecrackers booming in sync. But it’s 2015 in a fictional Canada, and the story is just about to begin.
(Perhaps it’s a cop-out to start a piece about Mommy on your own mother. You stick with it, because you don’t see any other way—when you love someone, you see their face everywhere, etc. etc., so of course everything you write leads back to her. Copping out is something you got from her, anyway.)
Previously institutionalized for ADHD and violent outbursts, Steve is now being kicked out for setting the cafeteria on fire (and scorching poor Kevin Julien in the process). Die picks him up, Dido’s “White Flag” scoring their reunion: But I will go down with this ship / And I won’t put my hands up and surrender / There will be no white flag above my door / I’m in love and always will be.
You like to think you and your mom are like that. One afternoon, when you picked her up from work, you argued about the degrees offered at your little brother’s college of choice. She insisted they have nothing but STEM, and you—who, if not for the grace of our dear Lord Jesus Christ, would be a nursing student—were so sure she was just saying this to trick poor artsy Adrian Paul to be a nursing student (Asians, amirite?). You go back inside her workplace to phone the administration office and check: the school does have art programs. Your mom explained what you two were fighting about to the receptionist, who responded, “Syempre ipapaglaban niya yung alam niya. Ano pa bang ie-expect mo, eh anak mo ‘yan?” Of course you would insist that you were right. What else did your mother expect from a human being she spawned? Ha! You two beamed. What a compliment.
Die and Steve are close, but not in the normal way—who would make a movie out of that? They see each other not as mother/son but as person/person. They nurture each other, anger each other, admire each other, fear each other. Steve wipes Die’s eyeliner-stained cheeks after she gets fired. Die accuses Steve of stealing groceries. Steve chokes her. Die hides in a closet.
(You often wonder what identifying with Steve and Die says about you and your mother. You struggle to reconcile Steve’s relatability as a precocious son with his tendency to go to upsetting extremes. Some days you feel like Steve’s outbursts are a cathartic personification of your own frustrations. Most days you shudder at the thought.)
Enter Kyla. Rose-scented, soft-spoken, tender-fingered Kyla. She is always described the same way in reviews of the film: the timid neighbor whose mysterious past left her with a stammer and a sabbatical from her job as a high school teacher; a good-natured woman swept up in the storm of the Després; a miracle. She meets the family at the height of a screaming match turned violent, swooping in with a first aid kit and a patience for the boy’s inappropriate jokes. Her struggle to speak—a symptom of grief, which the film only lightly touches on—forces the mother and son to resist their usual cacophony. She stutters. They listen intently. She is invited for dinner.
Die and Kyla. Kyla and Die. They are inverses of each other, like the queen of hearts on a playing card. One waves and one doesn’t; one has a medicine kit and one pretends she can’t find it; Die’s wild blonde streaks clash with Kyla’s perfect bob. They live directly across each other, as if destiny was a kid in science class unable to defy the tempting, inevitable pull of two opposite poles. And Steve? Steve is cooking broccoli: “This is fucking boring!” To which his mother replies, “Welcome to my life, darling.”
You take pride in the fact that you never didn’t see your mother as a person that exists outside of you. You know her joy (designer bags which you and she hide from Dad, or a dream in which she sees her sister just a few months after she passed) and her pain (cats destroying the plant she just purchased, the four miscarriages she had to suffer through before having you). She never fails to mention how she found her calling to be a nurse (hung out at a hospital and somehow didn’t want to leave?), what she liked about Dad (“handsome but doesn’t know it”), or that Fetus You stopped her from flying off to Great Britain (which 13-year-old 1D-infected you cried about).
But you never realized how small her world got, the more you and your brother occupied space in the house; the more you and your brother went from screaming about Vines to worrying about employment. And like Dolan, whose mother-centric filmography you perceive as him trying to make it up to his own mother but never getting it right—hence the attempts again and again—you write this as consolation. Perhaps you’re so drawn to this film because you’re obsessed with your mom’s life, self, before you, with what having you did to her. You like to think you’re the Steve in this analogy, or maybe just stuck in his age; only when you got older and unblurred your peripheral vision did you understand why Kyla was there. After all, this essay is not about you and your mother. It’s about your mother and her best friend.
The north pole is at her new employer’s house, searching for an opening in their small talk to ask for a cash advance. The south pole is at her house, tutoring the hyperactive Steve. She implodes at the teen’s taunting, her dormant grief erupting all at once. Die smiles at the center of a bank waiting for her $20 bills; Kyla is exhausted but forgiving of her student. The two women, miles apart, share a sigh of relief, as if splitting a lung. The worst part is over; the opposite poles pulling back together.
The two women dedicate everything to Steve, and to each other. They raise the boy together, for better or for worse, Kyla staying at home with him while his mother tries to rack up a few dollars. Die warns Kyla that there is never a dull moment with Steve, thanks to his unpredictable outbursts and discomforting sexual aggression. Dolan addresses the latter as Steve not understanding boundaries, and, in some small way, this is the filmmaker’s first step towards creating a father figure in his work. Like most of Dolan’s leads, Steve has an absent father, so he tries to fill in this parental role by being protective of Die and perceiving himself as her lover. “But, you know, all of this lies underneath,” Dolan continues in his explanation. “It’s just a story of love, and we didn’t explore the sexual tension.”
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Mommy and Dolan’s debut feature I Killed My Mother. Both carry similar motifs: mothers and sons, of course, but also co-dependence, frustration, and an affection that thrives in antagonizing each other. But whereas I Killed My Mother depicts Dolan’s own perspective (he called it his “punishment” to his own mom), Mommy reverses it, with the mother’s interiority being pulled into focus. “The mother’s revenge,” he calls it.
Your mother got a new car two years later, more out of necessity than a zest to go back to the hazard-stricken, danger-filled highways of hell. The country was on lockdown, and healthcare workers were walking miles to get to hospitals; your mother, always working smarter not harder, wore shirts emblazoned with her hospital’s logo when trotting on sidewalks so strangers would see her and clap for her and offer her rides. Clever, but unsustainable—she had to overcome her trauma quickly. Not soon after she was driving around our neighborhood with a brand new Toyota, practicing and screaming at the road like she was 18 again. Tomorrow, it’s off to work.
The north pole is in the driver’s seat, clutching at the steering wheel but too proud to admit she’s nervous. She stops at a corner: Enter the south pole, wearing a backpack too large for her shoulders and a Linkin Park (??!?!?!) sweater above her scrubs. It confuses you sometimes, how, of all the nurses in the hospital she works at, your mother befriends someone so drastically different. Then: The aux. The two women had just discovered (i.e. you showed them) that Spotify pre-makes playlists, and it’s ‘80s night. You’re reminded that different doesn’t always mean bad.
“We were done with math and chem so we fixed a snack,” explains Kyla beside an ecstatic Steve. They surprised Die with rosé and baloney rolls and cheese and grapes and—something you know your mom would be jealous of—a clean house. “We live like goddamn kings! Is this Versailles or what?!” screams Die. Come evening, the two women sit in the dark, unveiling each other’s pasts. Dolan, before fully developing Kyla’s character, knew she had to have a stammer—perhaps to make clear the moments in which she felt happier/calmer/looser/normal-er with Die. Die, whose late husband was an inventor, the maker of the Heater-Waver.
Kyla: The heater-waver?
Die: You know it?
Kyla The HEATER-WAVER?! Oui!!!! Everyone had the Heater-Waver! My sister! My sister-in-law!
The pair share a disdain for Americans (“They know best don’t they…when there’s money to be made!”) and laugh about innuendos. The camera leaves the room, delegated to a window. The wind overpowers their laughter. Steve is in his room making Kyla a pasta bracelet.
You begin to realize now how difficult it is to write an essay on your mother and her best friend. You like to think you’re the Steve in this analogy, or maybe Andy in Toy Story: you enter the room, and in an instant your mom turns to Mom and her best friend is just Ninang. You only know the glimpses or the stories or the Facebook posts (bought a large bucket of crisscut fries and drank Starbucks after their shifts again???), or maybe you know nothing at all.
In the eyes of those around them, Die and Kyla are not exactly in the running for Best Moms In Saint-Hubert. The former is often seen as white trash, whose foul-mouthed son she fails to control. The latter is fresh from a nervous breakdown, too absent to attend to a young daughter and a nerd husband (their words). It seems the wiggle room warranted to mothers is so minuscule, if not completely non-existent, that the tiniest trace of humanity is dubbed bad parenting.
Not to mention the pair is doing a fine job raising Steve on their own, thank you very much. The Wonderwall scene, the trio’s collective exhale, is arguably among the film’s strongest, most emotionally resonant sequences—and it was Kyla’s arrival that essentially made it happen. When Steve was screaming “Liberté!!!!!!” on a high, Die and Kyla were on bikes, fingers clasped. Liberté indeed.
At this point, the film’s unconventional 1:1 ratio breaks open into a more traditional 1.85:1, which Dolan only used for more hopeful scenes—a depiction of the characters breaking free. Speaking on the perfect square ratio, he said, “People have been trying to intellectualize the heck out of this. I just wanted to shoot [a ratio] that would allow me to be very close to characters, avoid distractions to the left and right of the frame, and have the audience look the characters right in the eye.” And that’s exactly what he achieved: the camera zeroes in on a face, its emotions more readable than if Dolan typed it out on the screen. It feigns a unique intimacy; through this claustrophobic aspect ratio, Dolan pushes the viewer into the center of the narrative—like Kyla, pushed into the lives of the Després.
Your first language is Filipino, and the word often used to refer to other people is kapwa, which more accurately means “together with the person.” “Kapwa is the unity of the ‘self’ and ‘others.’ The English ‘others’ is actually used in opposition to the ‘self,’ and implies the recognition of the self as a separate identity,” writes social psychologist Virgilio Enriquez in his book From Colonial to Liberation Psychology: The Philippine Experience. “In contrast, kapwa is a recognition of a shared identity, an inner self shared with others.” Author Jeremiah Reyes, in 2015, takes it even further: he says in Filipino virtue ethics, there is no self; the starting point of kapwa, after all, is “together.”
Kapwa, along with other concepts like loob, or relational will, existed in the Philippines long before Spanish colonialism. When Catholic missionaries docked in the islands with a mission (assuming that is why they are called “missionaries”) to convert the animism-steeped and completely-doing-fine early Filipinos, it was co-opted to fit the doctrine of loving thy neighbor as they undo to you, amen. This history strengthened the concept of kapwa; the animist tradition of feeling connected to all creation converges with Catholicim’s communio personarum, communion of persons. You have always understood the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” as literal.
“To be an authentic person, in a word, is to be a lover, to live a life of inter-personal [sic] self-giving and receiving. Person is essentially a ‘we’ term. Person exists in its fullness only in the plural.”
—W. Norris Clarke, Person and Being
Steve is in trouble. Die is trying to fashion a solution: agree to meet up with a suitor who works in law in hopes he’ll give them a hand. (In reality, he just really wants his hands on her pants.) “As always, thank you,” says the exasperated Die to Kyla who helped curl her hair (among many other things). The night takes a turn for the worse.
Die is in trouble. Steve hasn’t come home. Die is sitting on the couch, unspeaking. Kyla is beside her. The ubiquity of Kyla in the Després residence is not easily overlooked. The inherent largeness of the role she plays in the household becomes more apparent as the movie goes on. Did she wait in the Després’ living room until they returned? Or did she rush from her own home upon hearing that Steve was missing, presumably peeling herself away from her husband and their bedroom in the dead of the night? You suppose there is not much difference in the two possibilities.
The three of them are grocery-shopping. Steve is “in one of his spells” and Die is dying (pun!) to get out of there, so she splits the list between her and—who could it be?—Kyla. Steve walks to a different aisle and injures himself. They carry the boy out, silently but gallantly, desperate and panicked, their love for Steve and each other all exposed nerve endings; an instinct, a habit, muscle memory. “Grab the feet, Kyla,” instructs Die.
The ambulance gets drowned in black, and suddenly they are going on a road trip. Steve is okay, Die has a new car, Kyla is making sandwiches. Any first-time viewer won’t know what’s to come, but Die and Kyla do. Even if the film gives a peek of the two’s intimacy it also makes clear that you are outside of it, that there are moments exclusive to them, they are their truest and rawest only to each other. “A mother doesn’t wake up one morning not loving her son. Do you understand?” Die says to Steve, but also to herself.
For a moment the film makes it seem like everything will be okay. They go to the beach as planned and go home and live life and Steve gets into Juilliard and turns into Hunky Steve(?) who goes away for college and returns home with a Woman. Then there will be a baby. Then there will be a wedding, and Die is there and also Kyla. And of course it is just a dream—Die’s dream; in reality, they are at a red light and on the way to commit Steve to a hospital, which the fictional S-14 law allows parents to do.
Even in Die’s dream there are no fathers, not even Kyla’s nerd husband. Dolan has said before that he is drawn to centering women in his narratives because he believes women and gay men are in the same position of “trying to fit into society shaped for [heterosexual] men.” Author Sebastian Malmquist points out that perhaps Die secretly hopes to live her life with Kyla.
Together with the person. It is safe to assume a loss of self will come with the loss of friendship. With Steve institutionalized, the two are back to square one, peering at each other through hidden peepholes and closed blinds. Kyla is packing: she is moving to Toronto. She crosses the street to tell Die, and she rings the doorbell—something she hasn’t done before, even when they first met—and doesn’t take off her coat. Die takes it as good news, and wants them to celebrate. Kyla stammers. “I don’t want you to think these past few months didn’t mean anything to me, with you.”
Person exists in its fullness only in the plural. How do you reconcile all the people that you are in isolation, how do you cope with the sudden reversal of catharsis, of deliverance?
“Who’s gonna take care of you now?” Kyla asks Die.
Your mom got a six-seater and she offered rides to all her friends who live and work in the same area. One morning you needed to get to the city, so you hitched a ride on her way to work. You watched as the car stopped every 20 minutes, a new pair of scrubs (and a lone Linkin Park hoodie) entering and bantering with your mom for being later than usual (your fault! You haven’t left the house in a while, so it took you a long time to pick a lipstick, which you realized would be covered by your mask anyway). It almost felt illegal to watch. She has never traversed the dark roads of General Trias City, including the spot where she previously crashed, alone—she never has to.
“Loving people doesn’t save them. Love has no say, unfortunately,” says a social worker offering Die unsolicited advice at the beginning of the film. Die, putting on her sunglasses, responds: “Skeptics will be proven wrong.”