Friday, November 05, 2021

267. Uruguayan film director Rodrigo Plá’s sixth feature film “El Otro Tom” (The Other Tom) (2021) (Mexico) in English/Mexican, co-directed with his Mexican wife Laura Santullo based on her script: The single mother as a contemporary Brechtian Mother Courage variant



Although you don't attempt to show it, one has a point of view on things and it ends up emerging, whether you like it or not. Our films (with director/husband Rodrigo Plá) often turn on the limits of the public and the private, the individual confronting the state, and what happens when that individual is defenceless... The state of helplessness is one of the motors of what we write. Regarding why we often portray female characters, I think the question is really: Why don't other people portray them more?”

---Original screenplay-writer and co-director Laura Santullo, on her script for her husband’s earlier work  A Monster with a Thousand Heads (2015), a quotation equally applicable to  The Other Tom (2021), where finally she is not merely the scriptwriter for her husband’s six films but credited as the official co-director.

Rodrigo Plá (an Uruguayan) and Laura Santullo (a Mexican) are a rare husband-wife team making remarkable low-budget films, often with non-professional actors who give top notch performances, on subjects that matter for the ordinary, hardworking persons globally.  The Other Tom is their first work where Ms Santullo is credited as a co-director, even though she has been writing the scripts of all the previous films directed by her husband.  This film is officially a Mexican film, in which the characters speak in English, with the story taking place in some southern part of USA.

Elena (Julia Chavez) and her 9-year old
son Tom (Israel Rodriguez)

The tale is essentially of a single mother, Elena (a creditable debut performance from Julia Chavez) with Mexican roots, working hard to make ends meet with her 9-year old son, Tom. Tom (or Tommy as his mother calls him) has long hair, is intelligent and hyperactive. He troubles his teachers and sometimes his mother. Once again the directorial duo extract a lovely realistic performance from young Israel Rodriguez playing the role of Tom, evidently his first film role as well. Tom’s biological father always promises to send money to Elena but keeps reneging on his promises.  The educational costs of Tom in a school and monthly expenses force Elena to part-time prostitution.

As the film progresses, Tom is diagnosed to have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). ADHD can be treated with medication. Elena is pleased to know that her son will improve with prescribed medication and is initially pleased to see the medicated Tom or the “other Tom.”  However, the medication can lead to side effects. One of the side effects is a tendency to commit suicide, which young Tom attempts. The mother Elena realizes the connection recalling that a well-meaning parent had warned her about the side-effects of ADHD medicines.

A conversation outside a hospital for a cigarette break,
with a well-meaning parent, on the side-effects
of ADHD medication. The reduced visual size of people 
compared to buildings is a favorite visual stamp
of director Plá

The intelligent script of co-director Ms Santullo braces the hard-working Elena trying to protect the original Tom from becoming the other Tom. She has to brace against teachers who disclose the medication that Tom takes to other kids and report her to Child Protection Services (CPS) when she decides to take Tom off the prescribed drugs, which as a “Catch 22” scenario, is an offence that can deprive her of Tom’s custody. At a CPS assessment hearing Elena is forced to take Tom to a distant children’s camp. While the CPS hearing progresses, Ms Santullo’s script has this evocative line spoken by Tom at a coffee-vending machine in a figurative response to an elderly lady who shows her concern as he opts for a strong coffee (for a lady friend of Elena accompanying him, who the good elderly lady did not notice): “I am getting sentenced today. I killed a Fourth Grade Teacher and didn’t mean it.” The viewer knows that Tom did not kill anyone, but merely disliked her.

Tom's art teacher at school notices Tom's talent
to paint and offers to help Tom improve
further in that area; the sole positive comment
 Elena receives from a school staff about Tom

The in-camera hearing about Tom with the over-zealous
CPS staff that the bright Tom describes as his "sentencing"

The film’s open-ended culmination helps the viewer to realize that some laws benefit big businesses (here, pharmaceutical industry). Some teachers are a treasure in the education system; an art teacher reveals to Elena that Tom is very talented as an artist. Some others may teach well but not protect the privacy of a student’s medical condition.

One of the defining statements of the film on the strong mother-son bonding is Tom’s statement to Elena towards the end of the film: “If I said I hate you, it is only because I am angry.”

Tom ends up with a bloody nose,
when one teacher reveals that one student
 is on medication, a fact that ought not be disclosed

Elena, the caring mother, looking
even at legal options to care for son 
without medication

While Ms Santullo’s contribution is obvious and commendable, her husband Rodrigo Plá is able to continue what he is good at—to tell a tale visually and dramatically by choosing non-professional actors who match the best of professional actors. In his most admirable work, The Delay shot in Uruguay, Mr Plá ends a film about elders dying with a shot of an old man struggling with the onset of dementia in the midst of tall buildings in Montevideo with one daughter with three kids and limited means trying to care for him while another married daughter does not help her sister. The Delay presents the reverse scenario of The Other Tom where a valiant mother struggles to care for her parent because old-age homes are over-populated and cannot admit her father. As in The Other Tom, the ending is open-ended but the message of the predicament of caring single mothers is loud and clear. But these mothers trudge on. This director duo are making films that matter on pertinent subjects relating to those who are not rich but work hard.


P.S.  The Other Tom has won the Best Film award at the Warsaw International Film Festival (Poland). The director’s earlier film The Delay (2012) has been reviewed earlier on this blog.  (Click on the colored names of the film in the post-script to access the review.) The Delay (2012) was included in the author's list of best films of 2012The Other Tom is participating in the ongoing Denver Film Festival and is included among the best films of 2021 for the author.

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