It is a testament to the delicacy of Anna Muylaert’s “The Second Mother” that when Bárbara (Karine Teles) tells her household’s longtime live-in maid, Val (Regina Casé), that she is “part of the family”, the statement is simultaneously truthful and condescending. Val is part of the family, and not just because she so often hovers in the orbit of Bárbara, and her husband Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) and son Fabhino (Michel Joelsas), fixing dinner and cleaning up, but because her relationship with the teenage Fabhino appears, frankly, more intimate than does Bárbara's. Of course, there are always lines that Val cannot cross, like that doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, or the backyard pool that is a shimmering testament to the elite, mystical boundaries representing the divide between economic classes. Someone will have to break those invisible lines, of course, and the culprit turns out to be Jéssica (Camila Márdila), Val’s daughter.
If Val is, as the title implies, like a second mother to Fabhino, she’s like no mother at all to her own daughter, who has been living in India with her father and shows up in Sao Paulo, intent on enrolling in the city’s most exclusive university to become an architect. With no home to call her own, Jéssica first moves into her mother’s small room before the family immediately takes to her allows her to not only stay in the guest bedroom instead, but to sit at the table designated for guests and even eat hallowed ice cream. She is the obligatory narrative bomb that goes off, exposing rifts in the entire household operation, intrinsically bringing the silently suffering union of Bárbara and Carlos to something like a noiseless head. Indeed, the relationship that briefly emerges between Jéssica and Carlos suggests something much more melodramatic, and much darker. But Muylaert ties off the angle quickly.
Instead, “The Second Mother” maintains a wistful tone without ever becoming saccharine, revealing itself as being as much a story of a daughter’s love for her mother as a mother’s love for her daughter. Jéssica can’t figure out why her mother subjugates herself to this way of life and her mother can’t figure out why her daughter won’t. In so many ways, Jéssica is already more assured in who she is, even as she’s still trying to figure herself out, than her mother. And that is because Val has just sort of unconsciously assimilated with the family, and Casé's wonderful performance quietly conveys how easily she accepts her place, not out of resignation but routine; this is the way it is because this is the way it has always been. If anything, she goes about her mundane daily tasks with something much closer to joy than agony. It is why she feels such pain when, in an early scene, Barbara dismisses her gift of a coffee set.
And Val never really reaches a point where she has to change because of some dust-up with Bárbara and Carlos. Even if the living situation becomes rocky with Jéssica’s arrival, the narrative never takes the ultimate decision away from Val. No, Val, with a crucial assist from her daughter, figures things out for herself, even if the end leaves you with the knowledge that she has not figured it all out. When Val finally sets foot in the pool, which she continually claims she will never do, it’s a moment where, perhaps conditioned from hundreds of other films, I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall. It never did. I was glad it did not. She earned the respite.