By Mike Dub
*Opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
Anna Muylaert’s Brazilian domestic comedy-melodrama The Second Mother has been picking up Jury and Audience Awards all over the festival circuit, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a born crowd-pleaser. Led by a delightful and subtly layered performance by Regina Case (if it were an American film, she’d be a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination), the film is a well crafted story about a live-in housekeeper, Val, who works for an insensitive wealthy couple and their affectionate teenage son. When Val’s estranged and spunky teenage daughter, Jessica, arrives at their upper-class home, the delicate ecosystem of family and hired help becomes irreparably upset.
The building blocks of the story are at least as old as Renoir’s terrific Boudu Saved from Drowning, and the subgenre has moved through various incarnations, from Down and Out in Beverly Hills and sex, lies and videotape, to lesser efforts like You, Me and Dupree and Our Idiot Brother: the lives of a group of stable but unhappy people are upended by the arrival of a stranger who, through a series of transgressions, teaches valuable, life-changing lessons. However, unlike its own dissident Jessica, the film does not do much to disrupt generic conventions; instead, it employs standard archetypes for characters, hits all the expected emotional and narrative beats, and ultimately leads to a disappointingly tidy final act. Just the things to assure a festival audience award.
That being said, there is great pleasure in watching the performers bring life to their rather shallow characters. Lourenco Mutarelli as the weary patriarch and Karine Teles as his embittered society wife (she possesses a scowl worthy of an Almodovar film) inhabit their characters with exceptional professionalism. Likewise, Case sinks her teeth into the showcase role of a housekeeper who loves her employers, but is less a member of the family than she thinks.
Despite the conventionality of her script, Muylaert shines as a director. The film is most compelling and entertaining when exploring the unwritten codes of propriety that exist in the household. Val may see herself as an integral member of the family, but she is also almost always aware of her lower-class status as the housekeeper. When Jessica arrives, she either doesn’t know the boundaries she’s supposed to respect, or, as we’re increasingly led to believe, she brazenly tears through them. However, the family is equally confined by their rules of proper conduct, forcing them to speak only in codes and measured gazes. These scenes, which comprise most of the middle section of the film, could easily have been cloying disasters, but Muylaert hits each note perfectly, deftly balancing caricature and understatement.
The Second Mother may not transcend its conventions, but that’s not Muylaert’s goal. She has created a solid, conventional comic melodrama. While that approach may inherently create a ceiling on quality, it is nevertheless a ceiling high enough to accommodate a warmly palatable and engaging entertainment. Ultimately, it is a movie made more in the spirit of the conservative Val than the firebrand Jessica.