Writer-director Anna Muylaert writes themes into excellent, controlled first acts that turn capricious by the third. In The Second Mother, a core conflict of class tension and jealousy is curiously resolved by a character’s sudden disappearance for a lengthy period of time. By literally writing a character out of the story, the Brazilian filmmaker opts out of a sharper resolution of the screenplay’s prior confrontations. With Don’t Call Me Son, characters aren’t so much erased from the proceedings as underwritten and ultimately reducible to a singular attribute that governs their response to the challenges of adapting to shifting definitions of family, security, and identity.
These matters take increasingly ambivalent shapes as the first act develops, though Muylaert begins with the seemingly uncomplicated act of Pierre (Naomi Nero) finding a girl on a neon-lit dance floor and having sex with her in a bathroom. Muylaert captures the progression of this encounter with little fanfare; any possibility of a meet-cute is short-circuited by an immediate kiss, then a cut to sex. The scene is capped by a downward tilt of Pierre’s torso that reveals his hairy buttocks and thighs encased by women’s lingerie. Muylaert hardly lingers, let alone comments, on this visible evidence of transformation, both for the significance of the scene and the entire focus of Don’t Call Me Son, which becomes as much about a class-based concealment of manners as it does a more central focus on indefinite sexuality.
The film’s screenplay hinges on a major first-act reveal: Pierre, who lives with his mother, Aracy (Daniela Nefussi), was kidnapped at birth from his biological parents, who’ve been searching for him for the last 17 years. Muylaert positions Pierre’s shift from one family to another with an effective emphasis on quotidian details to clue the viewer into an implicit, thematic turn: Pierre, previously living with a loving, low-income mother and sister, now finds himself at the mercy of his actual parents—a self-absorbed bourgeois couple.
Muylaert equally pinpoints this divide with aplomb. Upon arriving at an upscale restaurant, Pierre’s biological father, Matheus (Matheus Nachtergaele), isn’t sure how many people there are in their party. Muylaert’s camera is removed from the entryway, perched behind a large table where the family will subsequently dine. The celebratory gesture—especially the decision to “go big” rather than dining in a more intimate setting—relates the fundamental selfishness of a certain sort of parental ownership, especially when it’s driven by the need for personal affirmation of worth.
Pierre’s birth mother, Glória (also played by Nefussi), equally reveals herself to be incapable of engaging with Pierre beyond instantly abstracting his presence into a form of midlife validation for herself. While stopping short of explicitly stating Pierre’s new role as a pet, Muylaert hammers the point in the film’s final half without formulating an instructive direction for these relationships to take. Turns out, Pierre’s preference for women’s lingerie also includes nail polish, lipstick, and dresses—a revelation that Matheus greets with an uncomfortable laugh, quickly followed by a burst of rage.
By making Matheus a fairly uncomplicated homophobe who likes to watch soccer and get drunk, Muylaert writes Matheus as a static figure whose anger clearly masks anxieties about himself. Similarly, Glória proves incapable of meaningful, verbal articulations; instead, she verges on tears when in the midst of a brewing confrontation. These traits take an intensified form during a late, flatly played scene inside a bowling alley, where shouting predictably turns to shoving in-between Matheus’s liberal sips of beer.
In addition to the shortcomings of these increasingly broad scenes, Don’t Call Me Son ends much too soon, just as the dysfunctional family’s status has come under its heaviest fire. The final scene is less suggestive of things to come than an ill-advised exit that gives overstated significance to small gesture of affection. Muylaert also makes some frustratingly amateurish formal choices throughout, despite many graceful ones, such as using slow-motion during an arrest, shooting Pierre’s band in handheld close-up, and often isolating Pierre within the frame to emphasize his singularity.
The film’s worst offense, however, comes while Pierre’s science professor lectures about not being able to tell what substance is in a container based solely on the label. Hardly a subtle thematic assessment, the professor’s words cut to the heart of Muylaert’s preference for summarizing statements and precious resolutions, the latter of which ends up feeling tacked on to preceding scenes of much greater significance and directorial command.