Review: The Second Mother (Muylaert, 2015) – SFIFF 2015


Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

I laughed, I cried, what more could you ask for? The Second Mother, the Brazilian entry for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar and a Sundance Special Jury Prize winner, was one of my favorite–if not my outright favorite–movie of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

The film was carried in large part by the tremendous acting of Regina Casé, a famous TV personality in Brazil. Casé plays Val, the long-time live-in servant of a wealthy São Paulo family. In addition to running the household of the independently wealthy Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) and his socialite wife Barbara (Karine Teles), she has also been nanny to their son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) since as long as he can remember. Val is the true maternal figure in Fabinho’s life, much to Barbara’s jealous outrage.

But, to make a living, Val has had to leave behind her own daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who is Fabinho’s age, with relatives and with Jéssica’s father, from whom she has separated. Now the estranged (but still beloved) Jéssica is coming to São Paulo from the provinces in order to better prepare for the competitive college entrance exams. Having grown up as  a member of Brazil’s emerging middle class, Jéssica has no context for the classism that defines her mother’s everyday life.

Every character in writer/director Anna Muylaert‘s dramedy is chock full of life, especially the two female leads, Val and Jéssica. Casé’s delivery is brilliant–from timing to facial expressions to tone of voice. She is vibrant without being hammy, belly-laugh funny while still maintaining her nuance. And Márdila as the passionate, idealistic, and proud Jéssica is every bit her equal.

The clash between two generations, the friction between two classes, the bumpy transition from a more feudal economic system to a more modern one could have made for a much weightier movie. But the lightness in Muylaert’s film doesn’t betray the seriousness of her subject. The pain and awkwardness the characters experience are very real and very personal (hence my tears). If Muylaert actually manages to entertain us in addition to moving us, all the more credit to her.

The Second Mother ends in a fashion that is fulfilling and neat without being trite or mawkish. Were this a Hollywood production, one could imagine a whole franchise of Second Mothers–more Val and Jéssica and whoever may come–demonstrating societal changes through the next few decades. As it is, I’m left wanting more of Muylaert’s trenchant writing, Casé’s warm funniness, and Márdila’s provocative confidence. Alas, I’ll have to seek them elsewhere.