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'The Second Mother' enters interesting terrain then pulls back

'Mother' is the story of Val (Regina Casé), who has worked as a live-in housekeeper for the same São Paulo family for decades. When Val's daughter moves in, she disrupts Val and the family's routine.

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    Val (Regina Casé) and her daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), try to catch up after a decade apart in ‘The Second Mother.’
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Val (Regina Casé), the dedicated live-in housekeeper in the Brazilian film “The Second Mother,” has been working for the same São Paulo family for more than a decade. There is Dr. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), a man of inherited wealth; his industrious wife, Barbara (Karine Teles); and their son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), who is preparing for his college entrance exams. Val has made herself indispensable to each of these family members, none more so than Fabinho, to whom she is like, well, a second mother.

Into this mix strides Val’s own daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), who is lived far apart from her mother while Val has been working for the family. Mother and daughter have not even seen each other in all that time, so their reunion is instantly fraught. Jessica wants to live with her mother while preparing for her own college entrance exams. Unlike Val, Jessica doesn’t “know her place.” She reworks her living arrangements so that she sleeps not on a mattress in her mother’s basement bedroom but in the large guest bedroom upstairs. She even gets Barbara to make her breakfast.  

This is the basic setup for a movie that keeps veering into interesting terrain only to repeatedly pull back.

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On the plus side, writer-director Anna Muylaert has a sharp, low-key appreciation of middle-class privilege and how that might affect Val’s status in the family. Muylaert captures the unspoken class distinctions that would, on the one hand, make Val a trusted honorary member of the family while still relegating her to “the help.” And Fabinho’s doting love for Val rings true; she is the nanny who is closer to him, in some ways, than his own mother, who is caring but constantly on the go.

It also rings true that Val, who comes across as the soul of kindness, should have some thorny issues within her own family. Val’s life with her employers has everything she probably wishes had been hers with her own brood. (She is estranged from her husband, with whom she left Jessica when she moved to São Paulo.) Beneath Val’s puttery good-naturedness is a residual sadness brought to the fore by Jessica’s reentry.

The film rises or falls with Casé, known and beloved in Brazil primarily for her television work. At first, her Val comes across with the thinness of a featured player in a sitcom. We know right away who this woman is, and we keep waiting for the portrayal to drop an octave. It never really does. The performance is skillful but underfelt. More interesting is Márdila, who shakes things up whenever she’s on screen (which is fortunately a lot of the time). It’s amusing to watch Jessica slowly, and sometimes not so slowly, drive everyone in the household into a dither. Inevitably, it all gets to be too much for the family, especially Barbara, who notices that her husband’s eye has been wandering a bit.

The film’s wrap-up, in which Jessica reveals some family secrets of her own, seems too engineered, too pat. Muylaert doesn’t do justice to the potential complexities of her premise. The film ends on a note of forced sunniness, but the outlook actually looks more like cloudy with a chance of showers. Grade: B- (Rated R for some language and brief drug use.)

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