Film Review (VIFF 2015) | The Second Mother

Smart and well-written, this touching Brazilian drama about a live-in nanny and her estranged daughter transcends cultural lines.

The Second Mother

Rating 8.6/10

Running time: 112 mins.

Classification: R

Release Date: USA – Aug 28, 2015

Country: Brazil

IMDB/Rotten Tomatoes

Best described to Western audiences as a Brazilian-language drama in the vein of “The Help”, “The Second Mother” is a note-perfect, slice-of-life story from director Anna Muylaert. An intimate, self-assured piece of work, it’s a story clearly told from strong personal observations of social, and class, hierarchies in contemporary Brazil. Cinematography and production design is excellent here, with the family home serving as a construct to reinforce, as well as challenge, the social structures in play.  Employing camera work that frames its subjects dramatically, with clear, but subtle visual barriers, windows, and doorways, all of the elements combine to express a heartfelt portrait of domestic help, and their often unrecognized roles as surrogate family members.


It’s a testament to the film’s writing and performances, that although most Western filmgoers may not be intimately familiar with the day-to-day realities of employing live-in staff, the situations, and emotions, shown here vividly punch through cultural barriers with a well-earned authenticity.  Unlike a film such as Adam Sandler’s dreadful “Spanglish”, emblematic of everything that felt inauthentic about nanny culture (even for Los Angeles), similar motifs are handled here with a sensibility that places “Mother” in a different league entirely. Deftly illustrating the subtle social nuances of hired help interacting with employers, it’s a touching, smart narrative effort.

The main character of the film, Val, played exquisitely by veteran Brazilian actress Regina Casé, is a hard working, kind woman who serves as nanny, and often housekeeper, for a wealthy family in São Paulo, Brazil.  Her connection to teenager Fabinho (Michael Joelsas), represents one facet of the ‘mother’-ly title nod.  Raising him from a young age, Val is his closest ally, with self-absorbed birth mother Bárbara (Karine Teles) generally too preoccupied to deal with much outside of her social, and professional, obligations.  Husband Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli), a retired doctor, is content to spend his days lounging around, and vaguely observing, the daily comings and goings of their busy household.  The second facet of the title comes into play when Val’s estranged daughter, Jessica, calls, and tells her that she wants to come live with her, as she prepares for her college entrance exams.

Val and teen daughter Jessica

As live-in staff, Val is content sleeping in a tiny, cluttered room, but must soon deal with the reality of making space for her daughter, while she starts looking for a place of their own to move into.  The film really takes flight with the arrival of Jessica, and it serves as the perfect spark to ignite the social, and class, dynamics that are at the heart of the story. Jessica, a teenager raised outside the influence of her mother, doesn’t appreciate the intricate, fragile balancing act that Val innately negotiates on a daily basis.  Concepts such as referring to the matriarch as ‘Mrs. Barbara’, or understanding that she should decline cordial gestures of social politeness by the family, are completely lost on Jessica.  Scenes depicting Jessica getting to know her mother, and try to understand her lifestyle, while Val attempts to impress her estranged daughter, are as poignant as they are honest.  Fed up with the complicated arrangement Jessica eventually loses her temper, asking “where do you learn all this stuff?  Did someone give you a book?  Who taught you to act like this?”

With wry, spot-on writing, and displaying a deft ear for dialogue, and social situations, director Muylaert paints a vivid picture of domestic servitude. From seemingly mundane subjects, like how food is segregated between staff and family, to emotionally complex questions of parental legitimacy, the film packs a wealth of social dynamics in its 112 minutes.  Similar thematically to another excellent VIFF entry a few years back, “Ilo, Ilo“, there is a tender, emotional connection between Val and Fabinho that serves as the basis for a wealth of social observations upon the arrival of maternal daughter Jessica.

Val with Fabihno

The only slight misstep, in an otherwise flawless depiction of extended family dynamics, was an unfortunate, cliche-ridden subplot involving husband Carlos.  It’s clear the filmmakers were trying to amplify the message that the wife is so self-absorbed that she doesn’t notice, or attend to, her husbands more intimate needs.  So they chose to include a couple of ill-conceived glimpses of Carlos hitting on Jessica, in one case begging her to marry him, a scene that came off more comedic than honest.  Transitioning from a kind-hearted, easy-going, father figure, his unwanted advances on daughter Jessica turn him predatory, and delusional.  In the larger narrative it’s a slight, but unfortunate, tonal misstep that thankfully has little ramification to the overall story.

“Second Mother” is well worth seeking out, and should have appeal beyond limited Art House screens.  With universal themes, placed firmly in modern-day Brazil, it’s a movie that feels equal parts heartbreaking, uplifting, and honest.  If you’re looking for a well-written, contemporary drama about what it means to know, or to be searching for, your place in the world, you won’t find much better than this.