In stretches of South America, where the middle class can still afford a live-in housekeeper, there's a renaissance of the kind of upstairs/downstairs drama that inspired scores of British novels and, later, frothed up into Downton Abbey. The best of the new crop might be Brazilian director Anna Muylaert's The Second Mother, one of the surprises of this year's Sundance. It spit-polishes all the signets of the genre -- snotty masters, harried maids, and fixed social classes -- to see if we still admire their shine.
Thirteen years ago, Val (comedian Regina Casé, phenomenal) left her own daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila) to support her from afar as a nanny for a well-off family. The trade-off of sacrificing one child to spoil a stranger's isn't lost on Muylaert, but she's interested in trickier things. Val likes her life: Her employers are kind, and her salary has bought her own daughter better options. But when Jéssica, now an ambitious and hardheaded college student, visits São Paulo, she temporarily moves in to her mother's small bedroom in the basement and questions the house's unwritten rules: Jéssica swims in the bosses' pool, sits at their breakfast table, and expects to be treated as an equal. We, too, believe in upward mobility -- the young and bright shouldn't kowtow to the rich. Yet it's impossible not to fear for pragmatic Val, who is panicked that her daughter's uppity antics might cost her her job. As we switch sympathies from scene to scene, Muylaert forces us to think big about the clash between idealism and acceptance, a philosophical war that spills beyond the walls of this small story into every corner of our own lives.