"The Second Mother" is a satisfying contradiction. It's a soap opera with a social conscience that casually mixes dramatic elements about serious class issues with a crowd-pleasing audience picture sensibility.
Written and directed by Brazilian filmmaker Anna Muylaert, "Second Mother" succeeds as well as it does because it's blessed with performances strong enough to win a Special Jury Prize for Acting at Sundance earlier this year.
Like Chile's exceptional "The Maid" of a few years back, "Second Mother" is grounded in the particular Latin American reality of live-in nanny/housekeepers who more or less raise the children of their employers, often at the expense of their own. As Muylaert asks in a director's statement, "Can there really be an upbringing without affection? Can affection be bought? And, if so, at what price?"
Though as that Sundance prize indicates, the acting in "Second Mother" is expert across the board: First among equals is definitely Regina Casé, a celebrated Brazilian actor and television personality for more than 40 years.
Casé plays Val, an emotional, enthusiastic woman who, after a brief prologue, is presented as a woman who has done cooking, cleaning and child-raising for a wealthy Sao Paulo family for more than a decade.
Though the family's source of income is money inherited by diffident husband and father Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), the dominant individual is wife and mother Barbara (Karine Telles), a Sao Paulo fashion and lifestyle trendsetter who assures a television interviewer that "style is who you are."
That leaves Val to raise Fabinho (Michel Joelsas), the couple's teenage son, who is about to graduate high school and counts on Val, who dotes on him, for the emotional support neither of his parents seem interested in giving him.
Val does not have a place of her own; she lives in a tiny, uncomfortable room in the family house. And though she has a child of her own, that daughter is little more than a photograph on a table, having been entrusted to relatives in the hinterlands to raise so Val can devote herself 24-7 to her domestic job.
In fact, Val has not seen her estranged daughter for 10 years and not even spoken to her in three. Then out of nowhere comes a phone call. That daughter wants to come to Sao Paulo to take the entrance exam for and possibly attend FAU, the city's prestigious architecture and urbanism college.
Val is at first over the moon when Jessica arrives, but the daughter, who hadn't understood that her mother has no place of her own, is furious when she realizes she is expected to stay on a mattress in her mother's tiny room in a large house.
Adroitly played by Camila Mardila, Jessica turns out to be a young woman of strong opinions with a sure sense of self. The family patronizes her at first, but she resists compliments, for instance insisting "I'm not smart, I'm just curious."
Jessica's presence turns into a major disruptive force, causing all the house's dynamics to spin slowly but deliciously out of control, and not just because Fabinho and Carlos both find themselves attracted to her.
Since she does what she wants and has contempt for the boundaries that Val has always taken for granted, Jessica also makes the implicit class distinctions in the house unavoidably explicit.
This not only upsets Barbara, who feels the family's center of gravity slipping away from her, it scandalizes Val. The mother's clear sense of how things should be done, of the kinds of deference servants need to pay to the served, lead her to view her nonsubservient daughter as a creature who might have arrived from another planet.
Though this may sound more dialectical than diverting, it's the gift of writer-director Muylaert to pay attention to the farcical elements and to clothe serious issues in unforced, naturalistic human situations.
In this she is helped enormously by star Casé, whose bravura performance as the engagingly grumpy Val adds life to every situation. Casé's work is so realistic that viewers unfamiliar with her history will think they're watching the real thing. And in the best possible sense, they are.
'The Second Mother'
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes