When a movie captivates you within seconds, you know you’re watching something special. The opening of The Second Mother—a simple scene of a housekeeper taking care of a young boy after he’s had a swim, while juggling a phone call to her own daughter—encapsulates everything the movie is about. It’s honest, observant, and unaffected, and writer-director Anna Muylaert never falters from that moment on. No wonder this Brazilian import won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for its two leading actresses.
Regina Casé plays a self-effacing woman named Val who has devoted herself to a prosperous family in Sao Paolo as their housekeeper and nanny—while her own daughter has been raised (on her earnings) by her ex-husband and his second wife in her home town, far away. Val has pampered and doted on the family’s little boy, who even now, as a teenager, is much closer to her than he is to his own mother.
Suddenly, Val hears from her daughter—whom she hasn’t seen in ten years—because the girl wants to come to Sao Paolo to study at a prestigious university. Her employers think of Val as family and have no quarrel with young Jessica (Camila Márdila) coming to live with her mother while they look for an apartment of their own. But the minute the brashly confident young woman arrives, the household dynamic is thrown out of whack.
The Second Mother is universally relatable, but to her great credit, Muylaert takes her story in unusual directions, one of them bordering on the surreal. Characters reveal colors and facets of themselves we don’t discern at first. But the anchor of all this activity, and emotional tumult, is Val, a woman who has willingly sacrificed everything of her own—until her estranged daughter forces her to re-examine her life, and ponder her future.
Originally titled Que Horas Ela Volta (What Time Does She Return?), The Second Mother bears a superficial resemblance to Sebastian Silva’s terrific 2009 Chilean feature The Maid (La Nana) but charts its own course with striking production design, a provocative screenplay, and most of all the commanding, genuine, and often hilarious performance of its leading lady. Brazil is submitting this film as its candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and rightly so. It’s a gem.