The Second Mother

The Second Mother may remind American moviegoers of the inspired exchange in Wild when Cheryl Strayed tells her self-sacrificing mom, “It must be weird seeing how much more sophisticated I am than you were at my age,” and her mom responds, “I wanted you to be more sophisticated than me. I just hadn’t figured out that it would hurt sometimes.”

In this sharp, unpredictable Brazilian comedy-drama, the writer-director Anna Muylaert creates similar piercing moments as she depicts salt-of-the-earth Val (Regina Casé) confronting her ambitious college-age daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), after a 10-year estrangement. This movie has robust verve and visual originality, as well as complex social awareness.

It sets up the premise in the opening vignette: a white-clad domestic cajoles a little boy to swim like an Olympian in a pristine backyard pool. (She pretends a golden retriever pup named Maggie is his enthusiastic audience.) Muylaert immediately establishes the warmth and edge of the storytelling. The woman is Val and the boy is her employers’ son, Fabinho. When he overhears this crucial woman in his life vowing to love someone else over the cordless phone at poolside, he demands to know who it is. Of course, it’s Val’s daughter Jessica, her only biological child.

Muylaert gracefully leapfrogs a decade ahead. Her pointed, subtle comic writing reveals that Val left Jessica in Pernambuco (in Brazil’s Northeast) when she was a little girl and found work as a live-in cook and housemaid a flight away in São Paulo (in the Southeast). Val sent her wages north to support her daughter long-distance but stopped visiting her a decade ago. The longer Val stayed away the more daunting she found the prospect of return. Hurt and confused, Jessica refused her phone calls.

When the main action begins, the two haven’t talked for three years. Then Jessica rings up Val to announce that she’ll crash with her mother while she prepares to take the entrance exam for FAU, the prestigious architecture and design school of the University of São Paulo. They are now so distant that Jessica doesn’t realize that Val lives in her employers’ house. Val has become so comfortably integrated into a wealthy family that it’s difficult for her to think of living anywhere else. She’s enraged when Jessica scorns her for accepting her designated position as “a second-class citizen.”

The Second Mother

Lightly and semi-satirically, the movie depicts how an upper-middle-class household runs like a small industrial plant, designed to support the bosses and to aid the raising—or the coddling—of their offspring. A woman younger than Val helps her with heavier cleaning, like window washing and vacuuming, and male workers appear on command to tend the garden or maintain the pool and the building. Val has become almost reflexively obedient. She accepts without question the boundaries placed on her enjoyment of the house. When Fabinho, as a tyke, asks her why she won’t jump into the pool, she says she doesn’t own a swimsuit. (She advises Jessica to use the same excuse if Fabinho asks her to join him 10 years later.) But Val has her own comic dignity. She savors patches of calm; in one elating moment, she luxuriates in the late-afternoon sun after hanging laundry. She adores being a secret string-puller, especially in the kitchen, her true seat of power. And she delights in eavesdropping on suppertime conversations through the dining-room wall. She helps Fabinho retrieve his marijuana stash after Dona Barbara (Karine Teles) throws it in the kitchen trash, a scene so full of split-second timing and concentrated mime that it’s like a stage farce in miniature.

In an unpretentious stroke of brilliance, Muylaert uses haute-bourgeois architecture and rituals to provide visual structure for her comedy and drama. The long thin hallway leading to the family bedrooms resembles a backstage corridor, with each door holding the promise of intrigue. (When Jessica gets to tour the home, she exclaims, “Every room’s a suite!”) Since the reigning woman of the house, Dona Barbara, is up and out at dawn, Val must act like a stage manager, waking Fabinho at 7 a.m. (Fabinho is played as a teen by Michel Joelsas, without an ounce of vanity; he sprawls out senseless on his bed as only a stoned adolescent could.) Upstairs she listens to Fabinho as he pours out his high-school romantic angst and checks on whether Dr. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), who must wake up by 11, has taken his medication. He’s recessive and possibly depressed, until Jessica’s presence perks him up.

The film doesn’t commit the error of portraying them as a stereotypically “dysfunctional” clan. As long as Val stays in the picture and Jessica stays out of it, they’re functional. Dona Barbara is a São Paulo society figure regarded by a TV interviewer as “a trendsetter.” Dr. Carlos never clarifies where, how, and why he got his doctorate. But we do learn that the family fortune was inherited from his parents. “Everyone dances, but I’m the DJ,” he says, ruefully. He once hoped to become a painter. (He’s connected enough to arrange for Jessica to tour Edifício Copan, the São Paulo skyscraper that is said to have more residential floor space than any other building in the world.)

The Second Mother

It’s fascinating to see how Val has funneled her gut emotions and maternal wiliness into this commonplace-crazy family since her own bond with Jessica was disrupted. Val, not Dona Barbara, has become the classic nurturing force for Fabinho—the dispenser of hugs, massages, endearments, and unconditional love. And Fabinho has grown so attached to Val that even as an adolescent he crawls into her bed to cuddle his way into a good night’s sleep.

Which makes it all the more confusing for Jessica, who is roughly the same age as Fabinho and studies more diligently than he does for their college entrance exam. The original Brazilian title, Que Horas Ela Volta? translates literally into What Time Does She Return?—the question young Fabinho would ask Val when he wondered about his mother coming home from work. It could also be the question Jessica and Val have asked for a decade. Their reunion is haunted by their search for answers.

As soon as Jessica enters the household, about 20 minutes in, The Second Mother becomes less like The Help and more like Down and Out in Beverly Hills (or its predecessor, Boudu Saved from Drowning). Jessica is upfront and in control, not mysterious or slovenly like Nick Nolte and Michel Simon. But simply by acting as an equal—by asking to be put up in the guest room, rather than sleep on a mattress next to her mom—she upsets the upper-middle-class equilibrium. Her breezy self-assurance can be funny. She’s also vastly more mature than Fabinho, and that isn’t funny. The movie seems to say that families devoted to material comfort and their own exceptionalism may support and even enforce immaturity.

Over the course of the movie, Val comes to appreciate Jessica’s grasp of 21st-century realities. She realizes that her daughter’s independence and resistance to the status quo can be a source of galvanizing hope, even to people set in their ways. (In the film’s most audacious, delicate comic coup, Dr. Carlos embraces Jessica’s rejuvenating powers—and, alas, tries to embrace Jessica.) And Jessica comes to believe that Val did suffer from their separation. More important, she sees that underneath their politicized generation gap, they share all the risks and disappointments of childhood, womanhood, and motherhood.

The ensemble isn’t seamless, but the performances are wonderfully varied. As Val, Casé, a star both as an actor and TV personality, plays a life-force character full-blast. This cook and housemaid sports a toothy grin, but Casé stops short of ingratiation. She makes Val’s motherly tenderness with Fabinho into something upsetting and extraordinary. Casé emphasizes her savvy as well as her heart, which gives Val instant audience rapport, even when she’s moaning that Jessica must have descended from another planet. Everyone except Jessica can see that Val has developed a suburban, upstairs/downstairs sort of street smarts and house smarts. Casé is square and sturdy; as Jessica, Márdila is as lithe and curvy as a question mark. Márdila, in particular, seizes on the central irony in the writing: these women can be more amiable with strangers than they are with each other. Fabinho complains to Val that Jessica seems “too sure of herself,” but Márdila interprets her as sensitive, proud, direct, and also private. Jessica remarks to Dona Barbara and Dr. Carlos that their house is “somewhat modernistic, but not exactly”; Márdila puts across that she’s not showing off—she’s simply saying what comes naturally to a woman who wants to study design. Jessica doesn’t reveal her core emotions easily.

The Second Mother

Teles’s Dona Barbara is superb at being condescending; Muylaert’s writing for this character is spot on. Every time Val says goodbye to her as she rushes off (or vice versa), Barbara tacks on a final question or command about Val cooking mousse or lasagna or a pie. Teles is such a witty and alert performer that she delivers Barbara’s orders with an air of noblesse oblige. As her husband, Lourenco Mutarelli, best known in Brazil as a creator of underground comics, imbues Dr. Carlos with a poignant, deep-seated silliness and yearning. When Jessica says she loves one of his paintings, she sets off a response that is increasingly unnerving but always oddly touching.

Muylaert and her whole creative team—Barbara Alvarez, the cinematographer; Thales Junqueira, the production designer; and Karen Harley, the editor—suffuse this film with an imagistic vitality. Muylaert and Alvarez bring richness and immediacy to settings as public as an airport waiting line, as private as a cramped, hot maid’s room with a TV blaring and a fan blowing, and as ostentatiously staged as a socialite’s mansion. The scene of Val in a pretentious lace-trimmed party-server uniform, handing out hors d’oeuvres for a house-full of blasé guests on Barbara’s birthday, is a knowing Mad magazine parody of all those post-Goodfellas Steadicam shots of people swooping into a swank celebration or nightclub. Muylaert and company focus on Val’s stiff back as she carries her tray into the party. Then they follow her herky-jerky lead as she waits on everybody from her kitchen door through the dining room and living room to the patio. Instead of timing one seamless, fluid move to the bossa nova on the soundtrack, these filmmakers stop their camera, swerve it and reposition it as Val lurches around to verify that she hasn’t missed anyone. We feel her awkwardness in our bones.

In today’s gentrified art-house scene, it may be easy to condescend to films with domestic subjects—what Jessica calls “second-class citizens”—as if they were second-class cinema. That would be terribly unfair to The Second Mother, which is as elegant and absorbing as it is politically committed.