By John Duncan Talbird.
We open Don’t Call Me Son on Pierre (astonishing newcomer Naomi Nero), pleasantly drunk or high, beautiful and mascaraed with long, wild hair, loping through a party, teens dancing by themselves or in pairs to electronic music. The handheld camera follows him and we see that he’s attractive to both boys and girls and that perhaps he finds both boys and girls attractive too. However, he hooks up with a certain beautiful young girl nearly as tall as he is and the next scene is the two of them in a harshly-lit, none-to-clean bathroom, screwing against a sink. The camera pulls back and we see that he’s wearing women’s lingerie.
The scenes come in bursts. Pierre rides a bike, Pierre goes to high school, Pierre has breakfast with his mother and sister. He seems morose, if not depressed, a brooding Byronic hero in the making. He sings in a band with male friends, one who is clearly into him romantically. And then his world falls apart. Based on a true story, Don’t Call Me Son follows several weeks of Pierre, a child who was stolen in the hospital at birth and brought up by that thief as his adopted mother. Thanks to DNA testing, Pierre and his sister, Jacqueline (Lais Dias), also stolen from her birth parents, are reunited with their parents and their mother up until that point in time (Dani Nefussi) is taken away in handcuffs. The scene where Pierre is called from his classroom to hear the news that his sister had also been stolen is a converse of the opening shot of the film. Whereas that first sequence shows Pierre from the front and side, all proud youth and celebration, peers glancing at him out of the corner of their eyes so as not to stare, this later shot shows him slump-shouldered from behind, hallway gawkers expressing curiosity and maybe pity.
After this scene, looking like a startled deer, Pierre is separated from his sister and moved to his new family, shifting suddenly from the lower-class apartment living of his previous existence to a bourgeois compound with a maid and a guard at a front gate. His parents soon insist on calling Pierre by his birth name, Felipe, want to help him decorate his room, want to help dress him. His mother calls the guard to close him into the compound when he tries to leave the house against her wishes. When Pierre is Pierre, he seems to be exploring his gender identity organically and his “mother” Aracy, despite her criminality, seems to be a supportive and loving mother. When he becomes Felipe, in order to rebel, he insists on buying a dress when his birth parents take him shopping, a demand that almost leads to blows with his traditional and homophobic father (Matheus Nactergaele).
Brazilian writer-director Anna Muylaert has crafted a scrappy little film about teen gender and sexual identity which is equal parts moving and funny. When asked in an interview how she thought Don’t Call Me Son would be received, she admitted that she didn’t know, that she realized that her new film was a departure from previous works. It’s true that the new film takes some chances. For instance, both mothers – the thief who raises Pierre and the birth mother who named him Felipe – are played by Nefussi. The handheld camera is also a new development for her, creating a less polished feel which is embellished by the fragmentary editing of the narrative lending a mosaic-like improvisational quality to the story. One particularly interesting scene shows minor character Joca (Daniel Botelho), Pierre/Felipe’s biological brother, playing the romance-rejection game with a duo of high school girls we will never see again. There is an absurdity and brutality to this adolescent mating dance that feels both like a digression and vital to the story. Like earlier films of Muylaert’s, especially last year’s wonderful and award-winning Second Mother, she’s particularly interested in the way that society’s labels – class, gender, sexuality – both define and limit us.
It’s refreshing and encouraging when you see an artist who is not content to churn out the same old thing once she’s discovered her “voice.” It seems that as a director-writer Muylaert composed something special in Second Mother, the story of a housemaid who takes her estranged and independently-minded teenaged daughter into her apartment in the live-in home of her employers. That film, like this, is equal parts moving and funny, doesn’t let any of its characters, even the flat ones, turn into clichés, and there are real moments of drama and suspense and zero sentimentality. The new film, perhaps due to its fragmentary storytelling, feels like it is missing a few important scenes. This only becomes apparent in the final two scenes of the film which feel unearned. The penultimate scene – a throw-down climatic fight and tussle in a bowling alley (excerpted in the trailer for the movie) – is one of those confrontations that we expect in a movie like this which deals with such raw emotions. And the final scene is one that potentially should blow us away with its quiet and grace. It’s beautiful and illustrates the fact that two young people, sometimes, when they’re alone without any peers or parents, can connect no matter how different they are. However, both scenes read a little cheap to me, verging on histrionic in the first and sentimental in the second whereas they should both be powerful. It feels as if there should be one or two scenes before them which set up these endings. In the end, these are minor critiques, flaws which make what might have been a great film merely good. And I think they augur great things from both Muylaert and her young lead actor.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.