Class tensions come to a boil in The Second Mother

Camila Márdila and Regina Casé

Camila Márdila and Regina Casé

Two overlapping families, both of them dysfunctional, play out an atypical upstairs/downstairs conflict in The Second Mother. Anna Muylaert's low-key drama introduces us to the class tension first through Val (Regina Casé), a live-in housekeeper at an upscale home in São Paulo where she answers to boss lady Barbara (Karine Teles), gets along fine with aloof patriarch Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), and practically raises their teenaged son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). Her own daughter lives elsewhere.

There are obvious barriers between the two families in spite or because of the fact that they live under the same roof. When, early on, Val gives Barbara an espresso set as a birthday present, the matriarch genuinely appreciates the thought (if not the gift itself) and quickly asks her 24/7 maid to put it away for a special occasion. Moments later, Val mentions her daughter by name and the lady of the house doesn't know who she's talking about. She's clearly fond of Val and grateful for everything she does, but the remove is palpable.

Muylaert is a keen observer of the interpersonal with a strong visual sense to match. Much of The Second Mother is shot from fixed camera angles, from one room looking into the next through an open doorway — like Val, we're only feet away from their lives but effectively invisible. She enjoys listening in when there's drama, and why shouldn't she? She lives there too, after all, and this is one benefit of being part of the family but also subservient to it.

So it goes until the arrival of Val's daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who hasn't seen her mother in many years. The aspiring architect is looking to apply to nearby FAU, a prestigious, difficult-to-get-into university that could greatly improve her career prospects. Muylaert is clever in how gradually she ramps up the tension; she knows we know something is coming but is careful not to tip her hand.

Jéssica is a shattering of illusions, the proverbial stranger who comes to town and changes everything. She's also a normal teenager who just happens to have one foot in two social strata at once, which makes her as comfortable borrowing a book from her mother's benefactors as she is helping out with the occasional chore. She has little interest in, or use for, the invisible walls separating employee from employer, and quickly makes herself at home.

Though meant to share her mother's small room, Jéssica notices a luxe, unused guest suite during her tour of the palatial estate and figures why not invite herself to take up residency there instead? Dad couldn't care less, but mother — the real string-puller here, who was initially so happy to hear of Jéssica's imminent arrival and even insisted on buying her a new mattress — silently notes her disapproval. This is how it starts.

And so the tension arcs between matriarch, outsider, and maid. (Dad is pretty chill, mostly just drinking guaraná soda, at least until he does exactly what you fear movie dads will do in this situation.) Resentment grows scene by scene. Jéssica is disinclined to assume the submissive air her mother does and relegate herself to willful inferiority. Barbara doesn't appreciate the many subtle ways in which her happy, functional dynamic has been altered.

Mother and daughter don't make for the happiest pair either. Jéssica refers to her mother by her first name, a classic tool of impudent teenagers the world over, and at times seems to consider herself above the hard-working woman who hasn't been able to raise her these last several years. Val, most often outfitted in oversized T-shirts (one for the Houston Texans, another a souvenir from Vienna, which she probably didn't visit herself), is quick to scold her daughter for breaking the house's unwritten rules.

All of them revolve around money, of course. "Everyone dances to my music," Carlos says of the money he inherited from his own father; it's his family's lifeblood and, by extension, that of Val and Jéssica. This is as explicit as Muylaert gets on the subject, which is refreshing — she trusts her audience to pick up on the grace notes. The filmmaker doesn't take sides, so it's difficult for us to either.

Most of the film's lovely images suggest a feeling of confinement, however voluntary, though a few vital moments give a sense of the house-as-ecosystem. These make for some of the most compelling passages, in large part because they go unremarked. A turtle slowly makes its way across the yard, apparently to the interest of no human or animal. Val descends into the mostly drained pool, its water level barely up to her knees, to make a late-night phone call. The family's loyal golden retriever surveys its domain, oblivious to the fact that no one else knows it all belongs to her. In her ignorance, she may be the happiest member of the entire family.

The Second Mother takes place almost entirely in that house, and though it would be easy to feel trapped within its walls, it's also understandable how disarmingly comfortable one might get there. So comfortable, in fact, that they all seem helpless when things finally start to change.

The Second Mother, directed by Anna Muylaert
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday