Anna Muylaert’s heartwarming The Second Mother (2015) stars Regina Casé as Val, a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family in São Paulo, has helped bring up their 17-year-old son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). She loves him as her own and he adores her. But Val’s work comes at a price. She was forced to leave behind her young daughter Jéssica with her estranged husband in order to be able to afford the money for her upkeep. Now 17, Jéssica (Márdila) contacts Val as she is coming to São Paulo to sit her university entrance exam. Val welcomes her daughter with love and trepidation but is mortified when Jéssica outright refuses to conform to or accept the hierarchies in the family’s home.
Instead of sleeping on a mattress in her mother’s tiny back room, Jéssica asks if she can sleep in the opulent guest bedroom complete with en suite bathroom. She’s quick-witted, smart, intends to study architecture and is keen to prepare for the all important entrance exam. She’s also curious about her surroundings, hungry for knowledge and quickly beguiles both Fabinho and his father. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) has no need to work and is consequently bored and something of a loner. In contrast his ambitious wife, Dona Bárbara (Karine Teles), has a keen sense of her social status and is deeply suspicious of Jéssica and her refusal to fit in.
There’s a vibrant political edge to Muylaert’s well-structured script. With Jéssica’s arrival, class barriers are broken down, petty snobberies are revealed and weaknesses uncovered. These are some wonderful telling moments such as when Dona Bárbara is forced to make Jéssica breakfast because she is sitting at their kitchen table. Later, Jéssica sits down to eat lunch with Carlos and develops a liking for Fabino’s special chocolate ice cream. Val is scandalised by her daughter’s presumptuousness, pointing out that the family only offer her things because they expect her to say no. In another dining room scene, the family sit in silence, incapable of communication because they are all separately attached to their smart phones. This brilliant, beautifully observed comedy is a joy to watch throughout. The Second Mother’s narrative works on so many levels, reflected in the film’s ambiguous title, and the characterisation is flawless.