Taking place in and around the northwestern Brazilian city of Recife, Marcelo Lordello’s They’ll Come Back shares both a location and theme (the country’s intensifying class divisions) with Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds, but distinguishes itself in method: Filho never showed the Recife slums, preferring instead to have them figure absently as a potential source of menace for his film’s middle-class residents, whereas Lordello allows himself more explicit juxtapositions. They’ll Come Back opens on a long stretch of road surrounded only by forested, rolling hills, where a car comes to a stop and lets out two teenagers, Cris (Maria Luiza Tavares) and Peu (Geórgio Kokkosi), and what was meant as punishment for a backseat fight between siblings turns increasingly worrisome as the parents fail to return. Eventually, Peu leaves Cris to go searching for them at a nearby gas station and also disappears. The next day, the stranded Cris walks off alone as well.
Lordello isn’t afraid to use his fish-out-of-water scenario, of the middle-class Cris being taken in by a small, ramshackle community just off the highway, to starkly lay out Brazil’s political realities. “She’s very white, isn’t she?” remarks one woman in the settlement, whose residents, besides being poor, are all black. Another woman, a cleaning lady at a nearby beachside resort, takes Cris to work and, after catching her watching TV instead of sweeping, quickly reprimands her: “Does the princess want some cherry juice?” They’ll Come Back examines the same middle-class perspective as Neighboring Sounds, but condemns it more forcefully. Particularly in Cris finding her way back home to Recife, where the details of her privileged life, previously only hinted at, emerge more fully, the film’s characterization of society’s higher echelons grows uniform: They’re all spoiled, cloistered, and self-centred. Coupled with a portrayal of the settlement residents as hardworking, taciturn, and kind, They’ll Come Back’s political message elicits empathy, but is also, in these instances, fairly conventional.
Luckily, the film has Cris and Tavares’s mature performance at its center. Once Cris returns to Recife, what began as a muted survival tale transforms into the story of a child’s awakening social conscience. They’ll Come Back holds no political punches in other respects, but in the case of Cris’s transformation it takes a subdued approach. Before reaching Recife, Cris stumbles upon her parents’ beach house, where she spends a day with Pri (Neighboring Sounds’s Irma Brown), a young family friend and neighbor who’s working toward her second master’s degree, but skips week’s worth of class in favor of a more relaxing beachside life. While quite obviously relieved to return to her comfortable existence, Cris also notices the disconnect between it and the community she just walked away from. She now recognizes the inequality around her, though she doesn’t fully understand it. Sitting by the pool, Cris naïvely tells Pri, “You’re so white”—a comment that only gets magnified later when Cris returns to school to a classroom full of students with equally pale skin.
In moments like that, Lordello smartly makes Cris’s experience a source of confused, if significant, learning rather than an epiphany. She’s too young to process her experience properly through the lens of race or class; what emerges when she returns to Recife, though, offers an equally powerful political statement. Back at school, within its more limited but more familiar hierarchies, Cris’s friends pity the fact that she’s been paired with an unpopular girl for a school assignment. They don’t understand when Cris doesn’t complain her way out of it. The following scene, where the two do their homework and bond over family pictures, is both remarkably touching and a sign of the high-wire act that They’ll Come Back manages to pull off. Lordello doesn’t temper any anger toward the status quo and privileged classes, but by emphasizing Cris’s shift from seclusion to emerging humility and empathy, he also leaves a space open for reconciliation.