She’s the fixture of their daily lives, yet housekeeper Val is more or less treated like the furniture of her well-to-do employers. She huffs and puffs and scrubs up and down and down and up, day in and out. Her silent suffering is most of what we hear in The Second Mother—her unspoken pain from leaving her daughter to become a caretaker echoes throughout the movie.
Val (Regina Casé), like many migrant workers before her, left home in search of better pay to earn more for her daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila). Years pass without the two ever reuniting, and it’s not until the now grown Jéssica needs to take Brazil’s college entrance exam that she comes to visit her mother.
And that’s when it all goes awry. Val works and lives on the property of her employers, the always glamorous Bárbara (Karine Teles) and doting doctor Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli). She has served the family for at least a decade as caretaker for their son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). But despite like being “one of the family,” Val operates with a certain code that separates the masters from the servant class she resides in. She doesn’t eat with the family, she cannot use the backyard pool and rarely does she ever voice her dissatisfaction.
Jéssica is not about to follow those rules. Dejected by her mother’s apparent abandonment—despite Val’s good intentions—she rebels, eats readily in the kitchen her mother cleans and takes the guest bedroom because it’s larger and is in the house with air conditioning.
The tug-of-war between mother and daughter plays along emotional and class lines. There’s Jéssica’s outright resentment of her mom, but it’s also her quiet rebellion against the norms that separate the castes. In Brazil, hungry upstarts like Jéssica are challenging the notions of the fairer-skinned, fancily spoken rich folk unaccustomed to having their authority questioned. The unkind matriarch, Bárbara, feels immediately threatened both by the girl’s attitude and that her son (and later, her husband) may grow a tad too fond of the spirited hell-raiser.
Kept largely within the confines of the family’s compound, the story holds real power. Egos and feelings brush quickly against one another, what leads to tense interactions that may ignite into full-blown screaming matches. The anger is palpable.
Writer-director Anna Muylaert carefully measures her characters’ intensity. No one feels particularly campy or out-of-line; the ensemble’s stories could easily happen in any home (assuming the home is a mansion). The little skirmishes of youthful rebellion against one’s parents feel magnified in the white walls of this modern household. Muylaert returns to the common themes of exclusion and disconnect time and again. Gates and walls keep the poor society out, and even in the home, it’s not uncommon to see the entire family staring into screens rather than faces. Bárbara is almost incapable of sympathizing with Val for anything more than her basic needs.
With the topics of class, race and privilege at the forefront of our cultural conversation, it’s difficult not to draw parallels from The Second Mother. It’s millennials like Jéssica who are asking questions about how the world exists, and the answers suggest perhaps “a better life” means little to her since her mother missed her childhood. The sentiment hurts both, and begins to awaken Val to the possibility that the world and role she stepped into may not be the way she wants to live the rest of her days—money be damned.
In that way, the story about class becomes a story about familial connections. Val has a much closer relationship with her employers’ son than they do, but that relationship comes at the expense of her bond with her own daughter. The Second Mother is a smart yet subtle portrait of the incalculable riches of a good relationship between parents and children.
Director: Anna Muylaert
Writer: Anna Muylaert
Starring: Regina Casé, Helena Albergaria, Michel Joelsas and Camila Márdila
Release Date: August 28, 2015
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Brooklyn. You can usually find her outside of a movie theater excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter.