Nobody adheres to the rules of the class system like domestics. At least, that’s the impression we get from The Second Mother, a sharp Brazilian comedy of manners about a live-in housekeeper named Val (played by Regina Casé) whose sense of social order is thoroughly uprooted when her fiercely independent daughter comes to stay with her in the home of her wealthy employers. Val has almost no relationship with her daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila), but she’s spent many years socking away money to help provide for her. Jéssica is, surprisingly, welcomed by Val’s employers, Barbara and Carlos, who sense one of their own in Jéssica’s strong personality: She’s not hemmed in by any traditional definitions of class. Jéssica’s behavior shocks her mom: She eats at the family’s breakfast table, converses with them like a daughter on college break (she’s actually studying for her university entrance exam), and becomes especially close with the husband, Carlos, who seems to be caught in a loveless marriage with a somewhat pampered celebrity. (Although it’s his money they’re living on, he’s quick to point out to Jéssica: “Everybody’s dancing, but I’m the DJ.”)
Writer-director Anna Muylaert has a keen sense of the tensions in relationships, and she resists any urge to paint her characters in broad colors. We feel both relief and indignation about Jéssica and the way she acts; we feel charmed by Val’s dedication to her bosses—she treats their babied teenage son Fabinho like her own son, and their relationship makes his mom jealous—yet frustrated by Val’s thoughtless dependence on old ways. But who can blame her?
The Second Mother smartly explores the ambiguity in the relationship between a household and its domestic staff. They’re never family, yet Val has essentially raised Fabinho. Moreover, she’s closer to him than to her actual daughter. She’s transferred her love to him, and she pampers him just as much as his own mother does. When he doesn’t pass the entrance exam (the same one for which Jéssica has been preparing), Val caresses him in his self-pity and massages his ego: “You were just nervous. You’re so smart.” When Barbara complains that Fabinho doesn’t show her as much affection as he does Val, Fabinho responds, “Val thinks I’m smart. You think I’m stupid.” But there’s an implication that Val lacks a certain level of education, that her judgment is purely based on emotions. He likes being coddled. Everyone does in this movie, including Jéssica, who at times wins our disdain for being such an ingrate.
Regina Casé gives a fine performance in the lead. Casé, a well-known actress and comedian in Brazil, doesn’t grandstand. She’s immersed in her part and plays it with total credibility. And as uneducated as Val is, she never appears dumb. Maybe silly, maybe provincial, but never dumb. Casé imbues her with dignity, and Muylaert’s understanding of the class structure—one that is probably very much alive in Brazil—is nuanced. She’s not out to prove a point, and because she believes in the total humanity of every single character in her movie, The Second Mother feels honest and perceptive.