Anna Muylaert’s new film, Don’t Call Me Son, is a story of both gender and sexual confusion, but Muylaert’s protagonist isn’t the one who’s confused. Pierre (Naomi Nero) likes boys as much as he likes girls, and he’s as comfortable wearing high heels and a zebra print dress as he is wearing skinny jeans, a polo shirt and a blazer. The trouble is that his biological parents aren’t comfortable with any of that, and also that they’ve just met Pierre after searching for him since he was snatched away from them by Aracy (Daniela Nefussi) in his infancy. Maybe Mom and Dad are just stuffy and uptight. Maybe they’re too attached to their heteronormative values. Maybe they’re just terrible, horrible, no good, very bad people.
Or maybe meeting your androgynous, model-handsome, crossdressing son for the first time in near-on 20 years just comes as a shock when you’ve spent the duration painting a picture of who he is and what he’s like in your head. Muylaert doesn’t judge, at least not much, though it’s hard not to peg Pierre’s father Matheus (Matheus Nachtergaele) as the villain of the piece: He goes from zero to enraged in a second when first introduced to Pierre’s proclivity for women’s clothing. Blind fury isn’t a good look on anybody (especially compared to that zebra print dress, which fits Nero like a glove), but Don’t Call Me Son neither lectures from atop a soapbox nor caterwauls from the pulpit. The film is too grounded for that, too charitable, too invested in panoramic understanding.
In other words, yes, Matheus sucks, but the situation he finds himself in with Pierre sucks, too. For its first ten minutes, Don’t Call Me Son suggests loose, free-form, rhythm-of-life filmmaking, setting itself up as the tale of Pierre’s coming of age while living with his single mother and his sister, Cristina: Pierre goes to parties wearing pantyhose and has sex on top of bathroom sinks, he practices with his band, he takes photos of his bare ass with his phone and he shaves his chest when no one’s looking. The film lacks structure, until that opening sequence passes and suddenly Pierre is hustled off to a police station, Aracy is in handcuffs and we’re sitting down for an awkward family reunion with Pierre’s birth family.
Don’t Call Me Son moves quickly because it has to. The film clocks in at about half the total running time of Muylaert’s last movie, The Second Mother, which was also focused on definitions of family. But that movie had space to stretch out its legs—by contrast, Don’t Call Me Son is downright compressed, though Muylaert uses each second with economical precision, folding meaning upon meaning into each scene without conflating or muting any of her themes or intentions. Her movie is about how we define ourselves by the people surrounding us, and what happens when they disappear or are taken away. Maybe a longer version of the movie would talk aloud about Pierre’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but that movie might not as effectively speak to either through text as it does through subtext.
Muylaert addresses neither in dialogue until Don’t Call Me Son’s third chapter, and that’s the best decision she makes over the course of the entire movie. There are no labels foisted upon Pierre. None are needed until the arrival of Matheus and his “real” mother, Glória (also played by Nefussi), and even then there’s no mention of labels for Pierre’s preferences in either sexual partners or personal attire. The film normalizes Pierre’s orientations and inclinations, though the lack of overt distinction lends it a surprisingly refreshing level of restraint. Gay, straight, queer, bi, cis: Whatever. Muylaert doesn’t invoke any of these words in conversation, and Don’t Call Me Son is better off for it.
What she does instead is go all-in on empathy and abject displays of powerlessness. Cristina, it so happens, was also stolen by Aracy, and in the film’s present tense she’s similarly recovered by her birth parents. Losing Aracy is one thing; losing Aracy and Cristina is another. After Cristina exits from Pierre’s life, and also from the film, we see the boy slumped helplessly in a patio chair, and his “aunt,” Yara (Luciana Paes), cheers him up with a simple game of “smash the plates.” They take turns hurling dishware at the wall, and when they run out, Pierre engulfs her in the most desperate hug you’re likely to see in a movie in 2016. That is ultimately what Don’t Call Me Son is about: the loss of self via loss of what you have come to define as your family.
Muylaert constructs the film with poetic harshness, suffusing the ugly details of Pierre’s ordeal with unembellished beauty, while her actors each melt into their roles. (Nero in particular is good, in part because this is his first time acting in a film, in part because the kid clearly has a natural gift for his craft.) But it’s her refusal to preach to her audience that makes the film resonate, and it’s her insistence on treating each character equally which makes Don’t Call Me Son so essentially human.
Director: Anna Muylaert
Writer: Anna Muylaert
Starring: Naomi Nero, Daniela Nefussi, Matheus Nachtergaele, Luciana Paes
Release Date: November 2, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.