The Brazilian import “The Second Mother” tells the story of a housekeeper, her employers, and her decorum-busting daughter, whose refusal to play by the old classist rules shakes up a household. Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, the film is a crowd-pleasing personal-awakening story with emotional texture and social substance.
Muylaert (“Durval Records”) brings a rose-tinged realism to this upstairs-downstairs story, which, on paper, sounds like a Brazilian “The Help” but, thankfully, more resembles less hackneyed, South American housekeeper-condition stories such as the Argentinean two-hander “Live-In Maid” and the Chilean dark comedy “The Maid.”
Val (Regina Case), a middle-aged live-in housekeeper, has, for 13 years, worked for an upper-middle-class Sao Paolo family: Barbara (Karine Teles), Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli) and now-teenage Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). With Barbara working daily, Val has been the primary maternal figure in Fabinho’s life. The two share an affectionate bond.
While the family treats Val decently, unwritten social codes apply. Val never sits at the family table, for example, or uses the swimming pool. She values her job. She hopes her wages can better the life of her daughter, Jessica (Camila Mardila), whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years.
A tense reunion occurs when Jessica arrives to stay with Val while she studies for her college entrance exam. Smart, self-assured and rejecting her mother’s sense of propriety, Jessica horrifies Val and peeves Barbara when accepting Carlos’ invitation to sleep in the nonservant guest room. Additional transgressions include eating Fabinho’s premium ice cream.
In other developments, Fabinho and Carlos become attracted to Jessica.
A secret emerges, revealing that Jessica, like the mother she resents, has made sad decisions due to social realities.
Inspired by Jessica, Val begins to see her own situation differently.
Sometimes Muylaert sacrifices truth for the sake of entertainment. Antics involving Val and a housekeeper pal are corny. Muylaert overdoes the sunshine at closing time.
But largely, this is a sharp, nuanced, satisfying drama about the everyday and larger consequences of class divides.
Muylaert condemns, without preachiness, a society in which parents hand over the raising of their kids to nannies, who then abandon their own children to take care of somebody else’s.
She conveys predicament: When the camera follows Val as she moves through a crowd with a platter of hors d’oeuvres, attempting to offer them to everyone present, we detect her nervousness.
Unlike “The Help,” the film contains no one-dimensional heroes or villains. Everyone is flawed but human.
The entire cast is first-rate, but the movie is Case’s. The Brazilian star gives the story a warm, life-embracing, irresistible protagonist. While Muylaert goes soft at closing time, the sight of this deserving character smiling is too perfect to reject.
The Second Mother
Starring: Regina Case, Camila Mardila, Michel Joelsas, Karine Teles
Written and directed by: Anna Muylaert
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes