Fortunately for 21-year-old Xavier Dolan, hubris is hardly a disqualifying trait for film directors. Especially when it’s warranted: By 19, the Quebecer had wrapped J’ai Tué Ma Mère, or I Killed My Mother, his autobiographical movie about the tension between a gay teen and his mom. The film won three of five awards at the 2009 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, a festival event that has showcased the debuts of Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola, among others.
Ma Mère’s script is by turns amusing and disturbing, and Dolan, who has acted in television commercials since he was four, used it to wrangle a cast of seasoned Canadian actors—whom he was not intimidated to direct. “I know what I want; it’s my movie,” he says. “Nobody had this attitude like, ‘You’re a kid.’ Nobody was stupid like that.” And he never considered anyone other than himself for the part of 17-year-old Hubert. For any other film, he reasons, “I might be told you’re too small, too tall, too young, too old. I thought, This screenplay is my life; I will not be too tall or too young. So I’m going to act the hell out of it.”
“I would watch him do a scene or edit something, and think, Give me a break—he’s 19,” says Carole Mondello, who helped produce Ma Mère on a budget of less than $800,000. “He is so gifted, and not just as a filmmaker, a writer and an actor. He chooses the wardrobes, helps design the sets, has a hand in how the actors’ hair is styled….” Indeed, the house Hubert shares with his mother is perfectly decked out with kitsch, and her outfits are exactly the sort that would inspire disgust in an artsy kid with a Rimbaud obsession and a superiority complex (think: cat sweaters). Was Dolan’s real-life mother offended by his portrayal of her? “Obviously,” he says, noting that they now enjoy a copacetic relationship. “But that’s totally her.”
After spending high school immersed in film and books, Dolan entered junior college in Quebec, only to leave two months later following an argument with a teacher who insisted that every sentence contain a subject and a verb. “I said, ‘Ma’am, if great authors stuck to this kind of composition, there would be no literature, and you would not have a job here,’” he recalls. Within a week of dropping out he had written Ma Mère, which hits theaters in July. It attracted financing for his second feature, Les Amours Imaginaires, which is set to screen at this year’s Cannes, and he has written a third, about transsexuals. An admirer of Gus Van Sant—“well, the early work”—and Paul Thomas Anderson, Dolan is drawn to the New York film scene but claims he’s “not interested in Hollywood.” Which isn’t to say his ambitions are tame. The response to Ma Mère, he says, magnified his already significant expectations: “This is dangerous.”