'The Second Mother' (unrated)

In The Second Mother, a shrewd and engaging charmer from Brazil, the cushy Morumbi neighborhood of Sao Paolo becomes a well-manicured battleground of the haves and the have-lesses. At the center of the story is Val (Regina Case, delightful), the longtime live-in housekeeper, cook, nanny and unofficial manager of the household, equal parts humility and breathless competence.

With her own daughter back home, where she left her as a baby years ago, Val has eased into a warm and affectionate relationship with the teenage son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) of her employers. Haughty mother Barbara (Karine Teles) and father Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), a low-keyed trust-fund inheritor, keep the boundaries neat and orderly. Then, after years of distance and guilt, Val gets word from her now-teenage daughter Jessica (Camila Mardila) that she’d like to come to Sao Paolo to take her college entrance exams. Barbara agrees to host her temporarily. After all, as she tells Val: “You’re almost family!”

The Second Mother uses Jessica as a pot-stirrer and an easygoing force of resistance to the class issues raging beneath this rigid social order. Arriving at the bourgeois home with the lovely outdoor pool, architecture student Jessica catches the eye of Carlos, then Fabinho. Pretty soon she’s making herself at home in the kitchen, stealing spoonfuls of Fabinho’s precious chocolate almond ice cream. Her mother, whom she does not call “mother,” cannot believe her nerve. When Carlos notes her innate intelligence, Jessica responds with a simple: “I’m not smart. I’m curious.”

Arranged and photographed in largely static but never dull fixed shots, the movie comes from Anna Muylaert, a former film critic turned writer-director. The Second Mother (original Portuguese title: Que horas ela volta? which translates to “What time will she return?”) runs into problems of hasty, all’s-well expediency in the last 15 minutes. Even those narrative shortcuts can’t impede too seriously on the sureness of tone and the comic truth in every performance. Muylaert’s picture relates to many other South American domestic comedies pitting “the help” against the economic overlords, but this one has the grace to humanize everyone on screen. The results are both smart and curious.

Cast: Regina Case, Camila Mardila, Michel Joelsas, Karine Teles.

Writer-director: Anna Muylaert.

An Oscilloscope Laboratories release. Running time: 112 minutes. In Portuguese with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: Tower, Miami Beach Cinematheque; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale, Silverspot.

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