‘The Second Mother’
Anna Muylaert
Stars: Regina Case, Camilla Mardila
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The Brazilian dramedy “The Second Mother” is the type that lets entire scenes play out in an unbroken, unmoving shots, staring at characters as they try to disguise their sometimes ugly intentions in polite chatter and unparsable body language. At its best, its view of the class struggle is just as clear-eyed. “The second mother” is Val (Regina Case), a longtime live-in housekeeper currently interred at a splashy Sao Paolo home, where she’s long learned to know her place. She dotes on the family son, Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) better than his own mother (Karine Teles), but knows when to hold back, to retreat to what is effectively her second class citizenship.

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The monkey wrench thrown into this fraught if sustainable living situation is Jessica (Camilla Mardila), Val’s estranged daughter and, like Fabinho, a teenager prepping for college. Arriving to hole up on a floor mattress next to her mother, Jessica is Val’s opposite: head-strong, not about to be made to feel like a lesser being and definitely willing to take up the family’s polite offerings — of, say, a nicer bedroom — even though they’re only being offered because they’ll likely be turned down. She’s also a better student than Fabinho, who has the floppy-haired slacker air of a wealthy scion who has never had to prove himself. Jessica’s every action quietly rankles her mother’s employers but even moreso Val, who flips out into spluttering fits, demanding even more than the family that she obey the rules.

Case is a well-known comic actor in Brazil, and she helps turn “The Second Mother” into a comedy of manners with a sharp satirical edge. The film needs her, as otherwise it would be at times a little too on-the-nose, and sometimes witlessly heavy-handed. Most of the time the parents are simply amusingly passive-aggressive, but Teles’ Barbara sometimes slides into outright aggressive-aggressive, even childishly draining the pool when Jessica winds up knocked in there by her horndog son. The salt-and-pepper bearded father (Lourenco Mutarelli), who likes to walk around in Kings of Leon shirts, even first makes a pass at Jessica then beseeches her to run away with him, then badly tries to pass it off as a joke when she proves mystified.

By the conclusion everything’s become too pat and needlessly self-empowering, compromising what had been a sharp and funny survey of how politeness on both sides of the income gap keep cruel social norms in place. It’s at its best when it’s drawing blood, not flattering its viewers’ good side and creating a tidy ending out of a situation that's far from it.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge