BY GARY M. KRAMER | At 17, Pierre (Naomi Nero), the protagonist of the compelling Brazilian drama “Don’t Call Me Son,” is trying to figure himself out. He wears eyeliner and blue fingernail polish. At a party, he dances with guys and girls. Pierre has a fluid sense of gender identity; he is testing out who and what he likes — and seems to be in no rush to make any decisions.
Pierre lives with his working class mother, Aracy (Daniela Nefussi), and younger sister, Jaqueline (Lais Dias), in a cramped house. Pierre often locks himself in the bathroom to try on lipstick, shave his chest, and take photos of his ass in a G-string. He is slowly becoming comfortable with his androgynous nature. In any event, there is a much larger secret being kept in this family.
One night, when Aracy arrives home late, Pierre is told to go outside where two policemen are waiting for him. They need to take a DNA sample. It turns out that Aracy is suspected of having kidnapped Pierre from his birth mother, Glória. Aracy did not adopt Pierre, as he has always believed. What’s more, it is possible that Jaqueline is not Aracy’s daughter, either.
“Don’t Call Me Son” pivots on this shocking revelation. Director Anna Muylaert, who earlier helmed the domestic drama “The Second Mother,” adroitly chronicles how Pierre recalibrates his life once returned to his biological family, who know him as Felipe. His responses — which range from withdrawing into himself to acting out during family functions — make the film so engrossing.
When he first learns the truth, life continues apace for Pierre. Still in Aracy’s home, he attends school, practices with his band, and shares a passionate kiss with the band’s male singer one afternoon. But soon, Pierre moves into the posh home of his biological family: Glória, his father Matheus (Matheus Nachtergaele), and his younger brother, Joca (Daniel Botelho).
In a nifty bit of casting, Muylaert has Nefussi also play Glória, and the differences between the two women are striking. Where Aracy was very hands-off with her family, Glória practically smothers her son with attention and affection now that she has been reunited with the boy taken from her many years before. When she insists on unpacking his suitcase, Glória discovers a red dress among Felipe’s T-shirts and shorts. Although he shrugs off the garment as “belonging to a friend,” during a shopping expedition, Glória and Matheus are shocked and dismayed to discover that their son prefers to dress as a woman. Is this behavior just a sign of Felipe rebelling against his new parents? Or, is he becoming more self-possessed, ironically now better able to express his true nature having become Felipe rather than Pierre?
“Don’t Call Me Son” plays on the two meanings of the title to explore complex issues of identity and belonging. Raising salient points about the question of nature versus nurture in the film’s 82 minutes, Muylaert asks who the better mother is and which is the better household. As Pierre/ Felipe comes into his own while seemingly reluctant to give his new family a chance, audiences will get caught up deciding what is best for him.
This gripping film also captures the tensions that arise out of Pierre/ Felipe being forced to “be someone he’s not.” How do children respond to being raised by parents they didn’t choose and don’t love? How do parents feel and react when their children don’t turn out to be what they want or expect them to be? And, of course, how does a young man who feels feminine struggle to exist in a body that is not one he chose?
Felipe’s relationship with his new brother, Joca, is significant in Muylaert’s exploration of these issues. Joca reaches out to his older brother, but also distances himself from him at times. When Felipe is sitting in a dress on the couch watching TV with his family, Joca does not comment, possibly accepting him in ways his mother and father do not. It’s a quietly powerful scene, and a nice contrast to a family outing where Felipe goes bowling in his red dress and attracts the wrong kind of attention.
“Don’t Call Me Son” is filmed in a very urgent, immediate style, and Muylaert practically eavesdrops on her characters in their private moments. Scenes of Pierre in the bathroom, looking at himself in the mirror, show him trying to define himself. Nero, lanky and sensitive in his portrayal of Pierre, uses his body’s language to communicate the internal conflicts in a marvelous, haunting performance that culminates in powerful confrontation. Nefussi is remarkable in the double role of Aracy and Glória, making both mothers distinctive and sympathetic as they grapple with the challenges involving their son.
Muylaert is successful in crafting a powerful and provocative drama in large measure by avoiding the pitfalls of sensationalizing its characters or the situations they confront in their lives.
DON’T CALL ME SON | Directed by Anna Muylaert | Zeitgeist Films | In Portuguese with English subtitles | Opens Nov. 2 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org