Platitudes reeled off when describing adolescence always include incertitude, off-keel hormones, and an ad nauseum identity struggle on the list. Seemingly anyone with an available camera and a personal narrative wants you to know being a teenager is traumatic and super tough and they’ve endeavored through their struggles to relay their story of personal triumph to you now, so get ready for a standing ovation. I Killed My Mother is the semi-autobiographical story of Xavier Dolan, who, much to the delight of the art film community looking for an indie darling to champion at Cannes 2009, wrote the script at age seventeen and directed the film at nineteen. Since then, Dolan has gone on to direct two more films, including Heartbeats (TMT Review). But the story in his newly-released debut concerns Dolan’s semi-fictitious self Hubert Minel’s caustic relationship with his semi-fictitious mother Chantale, portrayed by Anne Dorval. Dolan intends to leave you awestruck at the magnitude of his self-discovery and perseverance, but Hubert’s boundless self-involvement, narcissism, and complete lack of empathy left me awestruck the mom survived the catty pretensions of such a shitty son.
The film’s title is taken from an early plot development in which Hubert informs his teacher his mom is dead in order to write an assignment about his aunt, instead, when, in fact, his mom is still very much alive. From the opening scenes of Chantale driving Hubert to school while he denigrates her to a shouting match featuring Hubert trying to rend open her jugular via incessant insult, the unfathomable well of animus directed at the matriarch is never really fleshed out. Chantale, when trying not to engage Hubert in a vocal sparring match, becomes aloof and cold, not making eye contact and speaking his four-word sentences. Conversely, when she does respond to his constantly shitty attitude and rattles off her own snide remark, her son just throws it on his pile of grievances and pouts all the more. The woman seems harried at every turn. Though there are moments in which she publicly embarrasses her son by berating him in front of his class, or snidely revealing her knowledge of Hubert’s sexuality and boyfriend, it’s never out of spite — just frustration. When the character is reduced to her quintessence, Chantale is a working single mother trying to reestablish connection with a baleful son who wants nothing to do with her.
Hubert is most venomous regarding his mother’s penchant for kitsch in clothing and interior decorating (she dresses like a Canadian K-Mart mannequin and frames a black velvet portrait of tigers over her couch, which I actually thought looked pretty sweet). Hubert, who looks like he got lost on the way to his shift at American Apparel, constantly deplores her for her tastes and interests, seeking refuge in the pseudo-bohemian pomp of his boyfriend’s mom, Hélène. Whereas Chantale watches television and wears clothing from Fort Lauderdale, Hélène orders sushi for dinner and asks the boys to paint the walls of her office à la Jackson Pollock. To Hubert, Chantale is just a manifestation of “oppressive” suburban sensibilities and abysmal cultural taste. God, it’s all so unjust — she doesn’t even know who Jackson Pollock is!
Aside from the askew mother-son relations, coming to terms with sexual identity in adolescence functions as the film’s the other predominant theme. Coming out as a gay person to his mother, touted as a central conflict in nearly every synopsis or primer for I Killed My Mother, never really felt like a pressing issue in the film. Sure, strained communication was the order of the day in virtually every interaction between Hubert and Chantale, but it was impossible to tell if their relationship was strained due to the erratic emotional state of a teenager, the confusion and fear of a gay teenager, or just the fact that, at his core, Hubert is a recalcitrant asshole.
Dolan’s Bildungsroman plays less like a memoir chronicling trials met and overcome and more like a YouTube video diary of a sickeningly self-obsessed teenager who won’t stop filming himself. I Killed My Mother is 96 minutes of near-constant histrionics and self-created melodrama on the part of Hubert Minel (or Xavier Dolan, whatever), but it does leave you on a chipper note, knowing that compared to this little whiner you were way nicer to your parents as a teenager than you thought.