There's a scene in Mommy when the teen protagonist, Steve, rides his longboard to the grocery store. It's a gorgeous series of shots: suburban Quebec is rendered in vivid, sun-dappled colors, and the aspect ratio is bizarrely narrow, like an iPhone video shot by someone who doesn't know you're supposed to turn it sideways. Steve wears headphones while he's cruising, and though his mannerisms suggest he's listening to hip-hop, the music playing on the soundtrack behind him—the music the theater's audience can hear in pristine surround sound—is a Counting Crows song called "Colorblind." It's from the band's 1999 album, This Desert Life, and it semi-famously soundtracked a sex scene in the steamy teen flick Cruel Intentions. This particular selection, in all its mopey familiarity, evokes a reaction that repeats several times over the course of the film: This song? Really?
The French-language drama, which was written and directed by 25-year-old enfant terrible Xavier Dolan, follows Steve—a charismatic, outburst-prone 15-year-old—after he's kicked out of juvie and sent to live with his headstrong single mother, Diane. There's a ton of songs in the film, but it's not a "hip" soundtrack of indie like Garden State or one of Sofia Coppola's films, nor is it a zeitgeist-mirroring barrage of EDM and trap like in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. The Mommy soundtrack is like a playlist made by someone who's psychotically out of touch: Dido's "White Flag" plays while Diane walks down her quiet block; Steve listens to Eiffel 65's "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" during a home-schooling session with his introverted neighbor; and in a scene set inside a karaoke bar, after a group of girls sing "Welcome to My Life" by Canadian mall-punks Simple Plan, Steve belts out a sad, almost-in-tune rendition of "Vivo Per Lei" by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.
In an interview with Vulture, Dolan spoke about the careful costume choices he made for his characters. "Given the background and social strata that the characters come from, you can't really imagine that they've gone shopping lately," Dolan said. "We went for that very normcore, fashionless era in history, the early 2000s." You could argue that the soundtrack—full of sappy radio hits from a decade or more ago—carries a similar cultural significance, that it's meant to reflect the tastes of these white, working-class North Americans with little free time to dedicate to studying music or art. But the soundtrack also functions thematically: formulaic, emotionally one-note songs are juxtaposed with these characters' personal tumult, like Steve's violent episodes or his thick-skinned mother's escalating feelings of helplessness. At points, the music literally offers an escape. In one memorable scene, Steve puts on Celine Dion's "On Ne Change Pas" after dinner. They sing and dance along right in the kitchen, and even soft-spoken Kyla breaks out of her shell and joins in. For a couple of minutes, while Celine's singing, it really seems like everything could work out for these three.
In his 33 ⅓ book about Celine Dion, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, critic Carl Wilson uses the word "schmaltz" to describe musical moments of "saturated, demonstrated sentiment." He spends a chapter advocating that schmaltz is pretty much its own genre that offers "an unprivate portrait of how private portrait is currently conceived." This, he asserts, "makes it extremely vulnerable to becoming dated." In Mommy, Dolan takes schmaltz that's way past its expiration date and places it in a contemporary context, and the results are oddly moving. "Is a genre automatically lesser, artistically and in social function, for being more perishable?" Wilson wonders in Let's Talk About Love. Seems like Dolan would answer with a confident "no."
Not every song on the soundtrack is old; when the credits roll, a Lana Del Rey song starts playing. It makes sense, though, considering Lana is a kind of present-day schmaltz icon, like a bummed-out, vaguely alternative Celine Dion, churning out hyper-stylized love songs that are obsessed over and scoffed at in equal measure.
Mommy's soundtrack is emotionally affecting in the moment, sure, but it's also indicative of a larger trend in music consumption: the slow death of "guilty pleasures." In 2015, it seems like more and more tastemakers and intellectuals aren't really ashamed to tweet that "Call Me Maybe" is the best song of the decade so far, or to own up to liking a radio country song by Sam Hunt or Florida Georgia Line. Chance The Rapper turned the slap-happy Arthur cartoon theme song into a 2014 SoundCloud hit, and now there's Mommy, a critically-acclaimed indie movie—adored by the notoriously picky Cannes crowd—that put a Sarah Mclachlan song on its soundtrack with a straight face. Is schmaltz having a moment right now? Lana was on the cover of The FADER, after all.
Lead image: Shayne Laverdiere