In this story of child abduction, identity, and sexuality, Anna Muylaert seems interested in themes, like doubling or performing, more than the development of her characters.
The routine for 17-year-old Pierre (Naomi Nero) appear fixed as Anna Muylaert’s Don’t Call Me Son (Mãe Só Há Uma) begins. Each day, shark-like, he fulfills one urge and then the next, dozing through school, ignoring his mother’s motor-mouthed manias, jamming with an amateur garage band, going out to dance, and hooking up with girls. It's a familiar set-up in stories about adolescents. However, Muylaert breaks up expectations by dropping a provocative twist into the opening scene where, as Pierre has sex with a girl in a nightclub bathroom, the camera makes a point of noticing the garters he’s wearing.
At that point, it looks like Don’t Call Me Son is going to be a story about Pierre’s operating in a kind of bisexual borderland that films rarely explore, preferring their focus locked into strictly hetero- or homosexual norms. Pierre is neither a typically gay nor standard-issue straight movie teenager. Delicately featured and dark-eyed, quiet and mysterious, sleeping with girls and making out with boys with equal abandon, he’s like some junior version of a nail-polished androgyne '70s glam rocker.
But just as Muylaert seems about to dig into Pierre’s tale, the film is hijacked by the main storyline. It turns out that Pierre’s harried single mother, Aracy (Daniela Nefussi) is not his mother at all. He and his younger sister, Jacqueline (Lais Dias), were stolen at birth by Aracy, who then raised them as her own. In short order, Aracy is taken off to jail through a scrum of tabloid reporters and Pierre and Jacqueline are split up to go live with their birth families.
As Pierre settles into his second life, he’s asked to take on a new identity and given another name, the one first imagined by his birth parents, Felipe. His mother is Gloria, who is also played by Nefussi, in a bit of stunt-casting that doesn't much change the essential narrative. She fusses over every aspect of his wardrobe and behavior with an anxious kind of bourgeois fretfulness that’s completely at odds with his previous experience in Aracy's home, chaotic and workaday lower-class. Pierre is sullen in response to Gloria's attempts to reform, only acknowledging Gloria and his birth father Matheus (Matheus Nachtergaele) by pushing his feminine style further. Pierre insists on wearing dresses when he goes out with his new family, daring them to be scandalized or to throw him out.
Muylaert seems interested here in themes, like doubling or performing, more than the development of her characters. In addition to the same actress playing both mothers or Pierre/Felipe being called by different names, the film shows two scenes featuring Pierre’s new younger brother Joca (Daniel Botelho), first being rejected by a girl he likes and then rejecting a girl who likes him. Such mirroring may indicate the fleeting nature of tenderness or desire, but they serve little narrative purpose.
This lack of forward motion proves a critical problem for Don't Call Me Son. At times it recalls Muylaert’s previous film, the wonderful The Second Mother (2016), which offered a sharply comedic look at social anxieties and familial tensions. But the new movie doesn’t provide individuals with any meaningful give and take amidst all the awkward silences. Within this uneven structure, first-time actor Nero is unfortunately rarely as captivating as he needs to be, given Felipe’s central role in the final half of the film. His dour silences don't suggest a response to traumatic changes he's facing so much as they make his rebellion look bratty.
Again, the problem is structural. Running at less than 90-minutes, the film doesn't have much time to get us inside Felipe's or anyone else's head. Instead of the unhurried and precise examinations of another switched-child story like Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2013 film, Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi Ni Naru), Don't Call Me Son remains perpetually on the edge of insight… until it ends, abruptly and unsatisfyingly. While Muylaert deserves applause for resisting pre-existing templates, she fails to present an alternative that’s as intriguing as her initial presentation of the adventurous Pierre promises.