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Knight at the Movies: I Killed My Mother; 21 Jump Street
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-03-13

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By the time I Killed My Mother, the debut feature from queer French Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan, was screened at Reeling, Chicago's Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in the fall of 2010 it was already a given that his astonishingly insightful black comedy was going to break out of the festival circuit and reap mainstream acclaim.

The semi-autobiographical 2009 movie, penned by Dolan when he was 16 and made when he was 19 (he wrote, directed and starred) had already won three prestigious awards when screened at the Director's Fortnight at Cannes and received critical raves.

But then the film—which made my 2010 LGBT film list based on those two Reeling screenings—encountered big trouble when its U.S. distributor, Regent Entertainment, got embroiled in a lawsuit that put I Killed My Mother and nearly 100 other queer-themed movies into legal limbo. Abruptly, Dolan's movie disappeared from sight in the United States. The young filmmaker—already focused on his follow-up movie, Heartbeats—publicly had little to say about the fate of his debut. (His few comments were appropriately derisive about the distributor and wistful about the fate of his film.)

Although the Regent lawsuit has yet to be settled, the rights to I Killed My Mother have reverted to its French distributor, Rezo. However, even thought the film is still awaiting either a U.S. feature or DVD release, there is good news for the movie on the local front. For the first time in the nearly two years since its Reeling debut, it's going to be shown in Chicago. This will be at a free screening Wed., March 21, at 6:30 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center in the Claudia Cassidy Theater, 78 E. Washington St., as part of Cinema Q II, the LGBT-themed film series (of which Windy City Times is one of the media sponsors). The presentation is being generously underwritten by the Quebec Government Office in Chicago.

So what is all the fuss about? Dolan's feisty dramedy crackles with vitality and, given the filmmaker's young age, is astounding in its maturity and technique. The story focuses on the combative relationship (poignant and hilarious) between the prickly, artistic 16-year-old Hubert, who is gay, and his no-nonsense, conventional single mother who is doing her best to ignore the repeated displays of temper by her son and just get along. Anne Dorval plays the role with a combination of world-weariness and blithe indifference, and turns in a tremendous, complicated performance.

Hubert's mother, with her tacky outfits and deplorable eating habits, is no pushover and will only put up with her drama queen son's pushing and prodding for only so long. She doesn't care a bit that Hubert is gay—just that she was the last to be told (and by the mother of his boyfriend, no less). When Hubert's rages escalate beyond her control, she and his almost nonexistent father promptly send him off to boarding school—setting in motion another round of high drama.

Late in the film the mother has a phone conversation with the headmaster of Hubert's boarding school. The monologue Dorval delivers—in which she becomes almost insane with anger at the headmaster's overbearing suggestion that Hubert needs the guiding hand of a male authority figure—is one of the most breathtaking instances of film acting I can remember in years.

For Dorval's acting alone, the film is a must-see. Add to that Dolan's own petulant performance, knowing eye for character detail, offbeat camera set-ups and assured direction, and I Killed My Mother becomes a blissful character study. One doesn't really need the subtitles (the movie's in French) to discern what's going on in the epic battles between mother and son, who clearly love one another, yet can't seem to get along for more than five minutes. Never have I seen a movie that more clearly illuminates the psychological wars between parent and child; that it focuses on a gay teenager is a huge bonus. It's fabulous. See www.queerfilmsociety.org .

Of related interest: Dolan's 2010 sophomore follow-up, Heartbeats, is now available On Demand through IFC. Although it's considerably less audacious and inventive than I Killed My Mother, the movie has its own charms and continues to showcase the young filmmaker's striking originality behind the camera. Dolan again stars, this time as a college student who falls hard for a golden-haired Adonis named Nicholas who is also the object of adoration by his best gal pal, the stylish Marie. As the film progresses the duo, in between bedding other lovers, tries its hardest to woo the young beauty.

"Someday I want to see a gay-dude comedy," I thought to myself as I sat watching Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum go through their expected paces in 21 Jump Street, a comedic adaptation of the late '80s-early '90s TV series. By that point, I had counted about 13 of the more-than-25 gay sight gags and penis references in the script. It's not that the movie is bad—it certainly entertained the twentysomething urbanites I saw it with, and it has its share of genuine laughs; it's just that it's interchangeable with dozens of other movies that have come before it. Somehow, straight-dude comedies can't seem to exist without lots of gay sight gags. This always makes me wonder, "Would a gay-dude comedy with the dudes finding themselves horrified by their peers thinking they're straight reverse the process and illuminate how prominent (and really tired) this brand of 'humor' is?"

Hill (who wrote the story) and Tatum play two recent graduates of the police academy chosen for their young looks (and apparent immaturity) to go undercover at a local high school and discover the supplier of a crystal meth-like drug that is killing unsuspecting teens. Basically, the two are an updated version of Laurel and Hardy, with Tatum as the good-looking, idiotic former jock and Hill as the brainiac, shy nerd with a weight problem. It's been only five years since the duo were high school seniors but they discover immediately upon driving into the parking lot that Tatum's superior attitude, his punching a "faggot" and his insistence on driving a gas-guzzling sports car are all now politically incorrect.

On the surface it seems that things have changed but as the movie progresses, the age-old gay-baiting and the dick jokes pile up and the same questions I always ask myself at these dude comedies came to mind: What is it about straight boys inadvertently simulating anal sex that drives audiences to the point of hysteria, anyway? And more important: When queer culture becomes totally integrated into mainstream society, will this kind of stuff become as antiquated and uncomfortable to straight audiences as actors in blackface from classic cinema are? Dude, I hope to live to see it—and what cultural minority gets to get fucked in the ass, humor-wise, next.

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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