Brazilian writer-director Anna Muylaert’s new movie has been given the English language title “Don’t Call Me Son,” but it could easily be called by the English-language title of her last movie, “The Second Mother.” In both instances, a functioning home is shaken up by a suddenly re-configured sense of what constitutes a parent.
In the previous film, the focus was on a cherished live-in maid, torn between employer loyalty and maternal duty as she reconnects with her progressive-minded daughter. In the thornier scenario of “Son,” though, the viewpoint is that of a gender-fluid teenager who learns a world-shattering secret about his family.
The blow is surprising enough that if you have an inkling toward checking out a sensitively handled, naturalistically performed domestic drama about adolescent identity, don’t read much more of this review. Certainly, from the opening scenes of eyeliner-wearing high-schooler Pierre (Naomi Nero) enjoying the attention of girls and boys at a thumping party — and revealing a flash of lacy thong during a hook-up — you’d be forgiven for assuming the blurred sexual lines of today’s youth was Muylaert’s immediate subject matter.
Pierre lives in a tiny space with his younger sister (Lais Dias) and single, working class mom Aracy (Dani Nefussi), plays in a band (he’s the exquisitely brooding one), and when trying on lipstick and taking selfies of his androgynous look, locks the shared bathroom door. The intrusion that upends Pierre’s life, though, comes not from within, but from the authorities, who show up one day to arrest his mother for stealing him from the hospital as an infant.
When a DNA test proves it, they subsequently return him to his biological mother and father, whose moneyed, straight-edge life couldn’t be more different than his.
It’s a bitter irony in Muylaert’s scenario — inspired by a real life case in Brazil — that Pierre’s burgeoning nonconformity as an experimenting teen feeling his oats now has to be set aside to deal with a forced separation from loved ones, and being called Felipe by two overly attentive, well-meaning strangers who live in a gated community that to him feels like a prison.
The irony comes full circle, though, when Pierre realizes that he has a ready-made coping tool: letting them know who he is. His dressing room reveal — during an enforced clothes-shopping excursion for more bourgeois-acceptable clothes — makes for a showdown equally tense and funny.
“Don’t Call Me Son,” although built on conflicts that have fractured many a family, thankfully never veers into melodrama. Muylaert prefers to hew to a handheld aesthetic of small, pressurized moments that play elements against each other, be they about class or identity issues, the generational divide, sexual mores, or the battle between making up for lost time and looking for an escape.
She’s sympathetic to all sides, which is refreshing, and the performances thrive in this tightly knit, detailed universe of confusion. As Pierre, Nero at times moves like he’s underwater, and his mouth is as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa’s, but he’s got a gloomy charisma.
It took a while to realize that Muylaert had cast Nefussi as both moms — her early restlessness in only a handful of scenes seems miles from the later role of doting, put-together Gloria, who stares in disbelief at her reclaimed son for uncomfortably long periods. Though Nefussi is great, the stunt doesn’t really add anything. And as Pierre’s new younger brother Joca, a socially awkward pre-teen who finds a kinship with his new housemate, Daniel Botelho is a quietly authentic presence.
It would be a mistake to look at “Don’t Call Me Son” as a manifesto for identity liberation, or a soap opera with a warm and fuzzy resolution. It revs up, makes its spirited mess of issues, maintains its complicated humanity, then ends. That may not make it everybody’s cup of tea, but hey, Muylaert seems to be saying, what movie or person is?
‘Don’t Call Me Son’
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West L.A.