“The Second Mother” looks at the emotional impact of housemaid and nanny work, exploring one woman’s experience as her professional and private lives meet for the first time, causing all sorts of chaos. It’s a Brazilian picture with enormous personality and a deep understanding of the employer/employee relationship. It’s light when it chooses to be, but “The Second Mother” is crafty with a few comedic asides, generating a pleasant sense of misdirection, allowing the rest of this finely crafted, patient, and exceptionally performed movie to emerge from unexpected places, identifying the cost of personal sacrifice with outstanding precision.
In Sao Paulo, Val (Regina Case) is a housemaid who’s worked with style guru Barbara (Karine Teles) for decades, helping to raise young Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) since he was a little boy. Living a routine life on her own, immersed in daily work and the comfort she provides the teenage boy, Val is surprised to learn that Jessica (Camila Mardila), her estranged daughter, is looking for a place to stay as he attempts to enroll in a prestigious college nearby. Excited to be in her child’s presence once again after a decade apart due to financial woes and custody worries, Val welcomes Jessica into Barbara’s home, only to watch the young woman treat the property as her own, joining family business and bonding with Fabinho’s father, Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli). Mortified by Jessica’s forward behavior, Val attempts to curb such fantasy, dredging up longstanding hostilities and fears shared by the mother and daughter.
“The Second Mother” opens with an example of Val’s history with Barbara’s family, finding the housemaid poolside with Fabinho, invested fully in his safety and comfort while Jessica remains in a far away town, divorced from her mother’s influence. The story picks up a decade later, watching Val continue her intimate relationship with Fabinho, comforting him playfully as she tends to the daily business of chores, keeping her busy and controlled by Barbara. Gifted writer/director Anna Muylaert returns to Val’s clouded headspace throughout the picture, finding the housemaid situated between her emotional connection to the family and her employment status. She’s aware of boundaries, but seems frustrated by them, trying to please Barbara with obedience while remaining the rock her teenage son relies on out of habit.
There’s domestic complexity in “The Second Mother” that Muylaert mines beautifully, introducing Jessica as a figure of disruption, challenging Val by pushing her presence on Barbara’s household, which evolves into an extended stay in the guest room and abuse of kitchen time. There’s tension between Val and Jessica, brought on by their prolonged estrangement, but the screenplay doesn’t delve right into their antagonisms. Instead, the drama drips along, eventually filling the feature with hostility as Jessica becomes a part of her host family, eventually triggering interest from Carlos, who’s found a younger woman with a similar passion for design and art, temporarily freeing him from a dead marriage. As the days pass, tensions tighten, watching Barbara lose patience with pleasantries, while Val realizes that she doesn’t have a shot at controlling Jessica’s disobedience and suggestions of class injustice, finally exposing a history of pain the pair have avoided confronting for years.
“The Second Mother” enjoys a naturalistic approach, with Muylaert wisely electing to simply capture her outstanding cast in motion, with particular attention to Case, who delivers a spirited, nuanced performance, communicating everything about Val in minimal moves. The screenplay is also interested in perceived power plays, finding Jessica disturbed by her mother’s habitual compliance, sensing a bulging dysfunction that Val isn’t willing to address as she sorts out her authority with two different realities. “The Second Mother” is smart and fresh, taking on uncomfortable moments and subtle shifts in tonality with complete ease, and it also manages to hit hard as a drama, developing into a tale of catharsis by the end, earning its sincerity. This is a wonderful picture, and while it sustains a social and familial point of view, brilliantly massaging charged encounters, it’s also a feature that’s a joy to simply watch unfold, observing fully realized characters come to life.