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THE SECOND MOTHER (QUE HORAS ELA VOLTRA?)

In Anna Muylaert’s “The Second Mother” Regina Case gives a remarkably nuanced performance as Val, a housekeeper who has lived for years with her employers, Barbara and Carlos (Karine Teles and Laurenco Mutarelli), in their elegant Sao Paolo home. The title comes from the fact that Val has virtually been a surrogate mother to the couple’s son Fabinho, whom she coddled as a child and is still coddling as handsome teen (Michel Joelsas) about to take his university entrance exam.

Val, whose devotion to the family is unquestioning, is, however, a mother in another sense. She has a daughter, Jessica (Camila Mardila), whom she hasn’t seen in years. The girl has been brought up by Val’s husband in the hometown she left to get a job in the city. She’s estranged from him, and from Jessica too, whom she hasn’t spoken to in years. But she’s been sending money from her paycheck every month to help raise the girl.

Now out of the blue comes a call from Jessica, who’s coming to Sao Paolo to take her university exam as well: she hopes to go into architecture. Val asks Barbara whether she can put the girl up in her tiny servant’s room until they can find a place to share, and busy businesswoman Barbara quickly agrees, saying that Val is part of the family. Neither Carlos, a recessive fellow who inherited his fortune from a hardworking father, nor pampered Fabinho objects, and Jessica soon arrives.

Needless to say, her presence changes things radically. She’s a modern, confident girl, who looks upon her mother’s subservient attitude as antiquated and insulting. And while Barbara tolerates her, Carlos, in his shy, quiet fashion, is almost immediately smitten, praising her drawings, sharing his own paintings with her and eventually taking her on architectural tours that on which his yearnings grow ever more apparent. And Jessica is hardly the shrinking violet her mother is: as she’s being shown around the house, she’s taken by the plush guest room and effectively claims it as her own, with her hosts reluctant to deny her its use. Val is appalled at her daughter’s forwardness and indifference to proper form in dealing with their social betters. Val explains that her employers offer to share things with people like them in the expectation that they’ll decline—in effect making a costless show of generosity. Jessica dismisses her mother’s objections to taking advantage of every amenity she can.

“The Second Mother” is essentially a tale of two generations of people from the lower rungs of society, one meekly accepting a role of service to her “betters,” and the other demanding equality and recognition of talent over birth or wealth. It’s a microcosm of change that’s going on in contemporary Brazil, and Muylaert certainly indicates her own belief about the outcome when Jessica’s and Fabinho’s scores on the university exams are revealed—and the effect it has even on Val. She also dramatizes not only the reaction of those who feel threatened by the new order—particularly through the characterization of Barbara, whose snooty tolerance quickly turns to icy dislike as Jessica’s expectations become increasingly clear—but the fact however much they might try to bond, the relationship between mothers and daughters in such a rapidly changing world is going to be tense.

While the picture certainly touches on such matters, moreover, it’s a mistake to see it as a sociological treatise. It’s essentially a character study, and the heart of it is Val, whom Case plays with a marvelous mix of humor and pathos. Her attempt to connect with the daughter she barely knows, played with brusque efficiency by Marila, is presented in contrast with her devotion of Fabinho, whom Joelsas presents with easygoing charm, which persists to the very end. But the two relationships are also depicted as essentially complementary, the result in both cases of Val’s characteristic affection toward others. Barbara and Carlos, on the other hand, are both portrayed—nicely by both Teles and Mutarelli—as essentially isolated individuals, even from one another. Yet Val persists in having no ill feeling toward them, even after an act of rebellion against them at the close.

Muylaert and her technical colleagues—production designers Marcos Pedroso and Thales Junqueira, costume designers Andre Simonetti and Claudia Kopke, cinematographer Barbara Alvarez and editor Karen Harley—opt for a rigorously naturalistic look that suits the film’s direct approach and allows both the humor and the drama to breathe without becoming forced.

“The Second Mother” is a warm and funny tale of clashes both personal and social, and an engaging showcase for a wonderfully rich performance by Regina Case.

LEARNING TO DRIVE

One suspects that “Driving Miss Daisy” was on the mind of Sarah Kernochan when she wrote the script of Isabel Coixet’s innocuous crowd-pleaser, even if it was based on an autobiographical essay by Katha Pollitt. Though both leads are in the front seat of the car this time, they play out the same sort of sweetly cross-cultural friendship dance that Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman did that popular film.

Patricia Clarkson is Wendy Shields, a New York literary critic who first encounters Indian cabbie Darwan (Ben Kingsley) on the fateful night that she’s dumped by her husband Ted (Jake Weber). As the couple argue in the back of the car on their way home—with Wendy alternately bawling and berating Ted—Darwan listens to the painful exchange with obvious discomfort. Ted finally just gets out of the cab, leaving Darwan to drive the weeping woman home.

Later, however, he discovers that she’s left her purse behind, and so the next day he stops at her house to return it. She’s still in crisis, and after her daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer), who’s living on a farm in Vermont drops by for a visit, she realizes that she’ll have a difficult time travelling there to visit, since she can’t drive, having left that up to Ted. So she gets in touch with Darwan, who has a second job as a driving instructor.

What follows is fairly predictable: over the course of their rides, during which Wendy is the nervous Nelly and Darwan the calm but insistent instructor, the two grow increasingly friendly, with a hint of romantic attraction arising between them. But happily the script doesn’t go all the way in that direction, though it does opt for one especially obvious choice when Wendy responds to hostile remarks tossed at the turbaned Darwan by some xenophobic pedestrians. Instead it allows Wendy to exact a modicum of revenge on Ted when he drops by to collect some of his stuff from the house, and inserts a subsidiary plot about an arranged marriage for Darwan with a newcomer named Jasleen (Sarita Choudbury)—something Wendy can’t understand—and the complications that his new, traditional wife, who’s initially leery over the challenge of Americanization, brings into his life.

But in the end the film can’t escape a prefabricated feel, especially in the sequence in which Wendy is thrown into panic mode when Darwan insists that she drive over the Queensboro Bridge. She’s terrified of bridges, you see (which would seem to preclude any chance of her ever being about to drive to Vermont to visit Tasha)—which is just another way of saying that the coolly rational woman is frightened of making connections with others on a human level, an emotional problem that the driving lessons (or more precisely getting to know Darwan) eventually overcome.

Still, though the material may be prosaic, Clarkson, as usual, invests her role with more layers that the writing affords. Kingsley isn’t quite so fortunate. He’s trapped into just playing a more modern variant of his stoic Gandhi template, and though he’s a past master at it, the character ends up feeling two-dimensional. Everyone else is practically an afterthought. Weber and Gummer have what amount to little more than cameos, and Samantha Bee shows up briefly as Wendy’s sister, who arranges a date for her that doesn’t crash but winds up ambiguously anyway. (To add to the “Daily Show” vibe, John Hodgman makes an appearance as a car salesman, too.) In fact the most interesting supporting character by far is Choudhury’s Jasleen, whose woman-lost-in-a-new-world persona could easily have been the center of a different, better narrative. Another character that might have been made more of is the city itself, which is prosaically treated in Manel Ruiz’s cinematography. The interiors fare better, courtesy of production designer Dana Saragovia.

“Learning to Drive” is an ironically pedestrian movie that doesn’t go anywhere adventurous, but the two lead passengers –and Clarkson in particular—make it a more agreeable journey than it otherwise would have been.