The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?)


Mother knows best.

Mother knows best.

(2015) Dramedy (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Regina Casé, Michel Joelsas, Camila Márdila, Karine Teles, Lourenҫo Mutarelli, Helena Albergaria, Bete Dorgam, Luis Miranda, Theo Werneck, Luci Pereira, Anapaula Csernik, Hugo Villavicenzio, Roberto Camargo, Alex Huszar, Audrey Lima Lopes, Thaise Reis, Nilcéia Vicente. Directed by Anna Muylaert

There are the servants and there are the served. The distinctions between the two have made up society throughout the planet essentially since humans started walking upright. Throughout history, there have been changes, perhaps never more than now but we all belong to one class or another.

Val (Casé) belongs to the latter caste. A domestic working in the home of Dr. Carlos (Mutarelli) – whose doctorate is never explained as we never see him working mainly because, we learn later, he inherited wealth – and his wife Barbara (Teles), she has also raised their son Fabinho (Joelsas) as if he were her own. She in fact has her own – a daughter – whom she hasn’t seen in ten years nor spoken to in three. Val lives in a tiny, cramped room but is content, with a fan, a TV set, a tiny bed and the family she serves nearby.

Then she gets a call from her daughter Jessica (Márdila) out of the blue. It turns out that Jessica is studying for the entrance exam at a prestigious university there in Sao Paolo. She asks Barbara if it would be all right if Jessica stayed with them while going through the application process and Barbara agrees, magnanimously insisting on buying a mattress that Jessica can sleep on while staying in Val’s cramped room.

Val, who is very conscious of her place and what is expected of her (after more than a decade of service to the same family, you’d expect that), is grateful for the kindness and is absolutely over the moon at the chance to spend some time with her daughter.

Jessica, for her part, has grown up with Val’s estranged husband and has a bit of a bone to pick with her mother who seems to have chosen the family that employs her over her own family. She also has no patience for social niceties, looking at Val’s attitudes as archaic and incomprehensible. For Val’s part, Jessica’s self-confidence that borders on arrogance is like a creature from another world. She doesn’t understand why Jessica can’t show deference to the people who pay for Val’s service.

Before long, Jessica has wheedled her way out of Val’s cramped quarters and into the more luxuriant guest bedroom suite and is eating at table with Dr. Carlos and his family, putting her mother in the humiliating position of serving her own daughter. Fabinho also clearly notices the new girl in the house as does, somewhat creepily, his dad.

Fabinho is closer in many ways to Val than to his own mother who is somewhat cold to him and doesn’t express her feelings to him as much as the more outgoing Val, and Barbara in turn is more than a little bothered that her son isn’t willing to hug her but freely gives hugs to Val. Still, Val is a part of the family and she’s willing to put up with a little bit of inconvenience for a short time…until Jessica’s attitudes begin to unravel the carefully woven fabric of the family’s relationship with Val – and each other.

Class distinction comedies are nothing new, nor are they limited to Latin America. This isn’t strictly speaking a comedy but it isn’t a drama by any means. Muylaert tries to keep things light as much as possible, although occasionally her point about class consciousness is made with leaden hands. What Muylaert excels at here is developing the various relationships in the film which drive it, from the distinct employer/employee relationship between Barbara and Val to the loving mother/son relationship between Val and Fabinho. American audiences may react differently to Val’s affections towards Fabinho but using domestics as nannies who actually end up spending more time with the children than their biological parents is not unusual in Latin America.

One of the things I really like about the movie is the relationship between Jessica and Val. The two couldn’t be more different; the mother is squat, self-effacing, and the antithesis of glamorous (unlike her employer who is an arbiter of style for Sao Paolo). Jessica is thin, pretty and something of a know-it-all. The two have had little connection over the years but both have a strong work ethic and as the movie unspools, they begin to develop an understanding and eventually a respect for each other. At the end of the day, Val is still Jessica’s mom and Jessica is still Val’s daughter and that forgives a lot of sins. Not all of them, but a lot.

One thing I wish the movie had explored more was the dynamic between Barbara, Fabinho and Val. There is certainly some tension there and it isn’t really explored; I’m guessing that Brazilian audiences are more used to the concept than American audiences so there is a bit of cinematic shorthand involved; it’s a given that these types of arrangements work out. I would have liked to have seen more of what the two women thought of the other’s relationship with Fabinho, but again, I imagine it is understood by locals. There is a nice moment between Fabinho and Barbara near the end; part of the overall sweet feeling of the film.

Critics have praised the movie pretty much universally (see scores below) but I have to say I’m a little bit less enthusiastic. It’s a good film to be sure and there are certainly a lot of undercurrents worth exploring, but they really don’t get explored much. At the end of the day, this is more like a soft drink than a Caipirinha. Lots of bubbles, lots of fizz but not as much substance perhaps as one might wish.

REASONS TO GO: Frothy. Captures mother-daughter relationship nicely. Tender-hearted.
REASONS TO STAY: A little creepy in places. Hits one over the head with its point. Could have developed Fabinho a bit better and especially his relationship with Val and Barbara.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity and some brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brazil’s official submission for the 2016 Foreign Language Film Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, VOD (check your local provider)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spanglish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: A Very Murray Christmas

Ilo Ilo


Everybody ought to have a maid.

Everybody ought to have a maid.

(2013) Drama (Film Movement) Koh Jia Ler, Angeli Bayani, Tian Wen Chen, Yann Yann Yeo, Jo Kukathas. Directed by Anthony Chen

Offshoring

Two parents working is an economic reality that is true just about everywhere; it is not a matter of preference but necessity.

Jiale (Ler) is a young boy whose parents both work. His father, Teck (Chen) is a salesman whose product proves to be woefully inferior. That’s never a good situation to be in for any sort of salesman. His mother Hwee Leng (Yeo) who is substantially pregnant, works as an administrator for a business that is laying off employees at a frightening clip. You see, it’s 1997 and the Asian economic crisis has swept into Singapore like a monsoon followed by a tsunami.

As Jiale begins acting out in school, Hwee Leng, called to the principal’s office for what is likely not the first time, realizes that she needs help. She prevails upon Teck to hire a maid. That made is Teresa (Bayani) from the Philippines who left her son back home in order to earn money. However, she is not just to be a maid – she is also to be something of a nanny to Jiale.

At first, Jiale is furious at the intrusion. He finds ways to humiliate and torture Teresa that might have worked had Teresa been as timid inside as she was deferent outside. However she has a surprising core of steel and Jiale is eventually put to heel. In fact, the more time Teresa and Jiale spend together, the closer their bond becomes which doesn’t sit too well with Hwee Leng.

Both Teck and Hwee Leng have a lot on their minds. As Hwee Leng’s pregnancy progresses, she relies more and more on Teresa which bothers her quite a bit. Already with a bit of a patrician attitude to begin with, she continues to put Teresa in her place (which is squarely below Hwee Leng’s social standing) at every opportunity. It is Teck and Jiale who start to open up to the maid who becomes something of a confidant. And while the economic situation worsens for Teck and Hwee Leng grows more and more stressed, Teresa is slowly becoming indispensable for Jiale.

Chen, directing his first feature-length film, based this on his own experiences growing up in Singapore at the time period the film is set in with two working parents and a Filipino maid/nanny (in fact following the film’s Camera d’Or win at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, he was inspired to find her in the Philippines and re-establish contact). The film has that air of realism that often comes with semi-biographical films.

Ler is a pretty natural actor and dang cute on top of that. He is often called upon to be mean, surly and cruel which kids don’t necessarily take to naturally – and as the film progresses, he is called upon to be reflective, open and affectionate. Young Jiale is somewhat spoiled and very spirited and although it might sound like an easy role to play, let me assure you that it isn’t.

Yeo also has a thankless role, but pulls it off. She isn’t necessarily a sympathetic character (which makes one wonder about Chen’s relationship with his mother) but she’s a character who is definitely buffeted by winds outside of her control. Her husband is somewhat weak and doesn’t always act wisely or in the family’s best interests and that weighs upon her, almost forced into the role of being the pillar of the family which may or may not be a role she’s suited for (Hwee Ling I mean). Yeo became pregnant shortly before filming began and her pregnancy was then written into the film. Chen’s own mother was not pregnant during the time that his nanny was there. Incidentally, the pictures over the end credits are Yeo with her actual baby, who was born shortly after filming ended.

The relationships between mother and son, father and son and mother and father are all impacted by the arrival of Teresa, who changes the dynamics of all the relationships in the family. Her relationships with the family members are also very distinct and different from one another. They feel organic and realistic and go a long way to making the film accessible.

While the movie drags in spots and occasionally makes redundant points, the feeling here is of being the fly on the wall in an intimate family setting. We see the toll the financial stress takes on the family – the kind of thing plenty of Americans can relate to in these difficult times. We also see the toll Jiale’s behavior takes on the parents, which any parent from any culture can relate to. There will be those who will find this to hit a little too close to home in places, but at the very least it’s comforting to know that no matter where you live, there are things we all share in common.

REASONS TO GO: Nice complexity to the various relationships. Americans will be able to relate to the issues here.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels a little forced in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language and smoking as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is named for the Filipino province where Chen’s actual nanny was from.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nanny Diaries

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!