SLIFF Spotlight: 'Good Manners'

Thursday, November 1, 2018
A still from 'Good Manners'.

2017 / Brazil / 135 min. / Dir. by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas / Opened in select cities on Jul. 27, 2018

Andrew Wyatt

Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

Roughly halfway through its running time, the sublimely strange Brazilian feature Good Manners shifts with shocking savagery from one species of story into a wildly different one. As such, it’s challenging to discuss the film – a lurid and ambitious genre mashup from the writer-director team of Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas (Hard Labor [2011]) – without straying into serious spoiler territory. The feature begins in a measured, realistic mode laced with prickly racial, gender, and sexual subtext. São Paulo native Clara (Isabél Zuaa, wonderfully self-possessed) is an Afro-Brazilian nurse who interviews for a nanny position with Ana (Marjorie Estiano), a wealthy white expectant mother in a chic, high-rise apartment. Despite her thin résumé, Clara lands the job when she leaps to respond soothingly and intuitively to Ana’s stabbing pregnancy pangs.

Ana is a bit of a spoiled little rich girl, but she’s estranged from her family and seemingly friendless, exiled from her plantation upbringing to raise her imminent child alone in the big city. Clara’s new position is characterized by what management types term “scope creep”: She’s not just the nanny-to-be, but also Ana’s maid, cook, shopper, and confidant-by-default. Despite the systemic racial and class inequalities built into their relationship, the two women grow on one another, discovering a steadfast friendship that eventually takes on romantic and erotic dimensions. The passion is laced with dark unease, however. Clara discovers that Ana sleepwalks on the four nights of the full moon, rummaging through the fridge for raw meat and eventually shuffling out into the streets to catch and devour (!) stray cats. There’s also the matter of the baby’s biological father, a hirsute mystery man who vanished into the night shortly after hooking up with Ana – also during the full moon.

Dutra and Rojas present this bizarre scenario with an air of crisp, ghoulish absurdity that’s reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster [2015]; The Killing of a Sacred Deer [2017]), albeit warmer and queerer. Until the film’s midpoint heel-turn, Good Manners feels deliciously unpredictable in a way that only daring genre-benders such as this ever really manage. (Oh, yes: In addition to a flashback rendered in vivid hand-drawn pictures, this grisly lesbian werewolf movie also happens to feature musical numbers.) After one night of horrific heartbreak, however, the film leaps forward in time and shifts gears, assuming a much more familiar shape, especially to veteran creature-feature fans: a ticking-clock tragedy about a latent lycanthropic curse.

While it undeniably loses some of its idiosyncratic ambiance in its second half, Good Manners still manages to put an agreeably distinctive spin on its beastly tropes. Besides grounding their story in the rich textures and jarring contrasts of Brazilian city life, the directors lean into the intrinsic poignancy of a parent-child relationship in extremis, evoking films both creepy and angst-ridden, including Rosemary’s Baby (1968), It’s Alive (1974), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), and Room (2015).

Granted, Dutra and Rojas take their sweet time checking off the same story beats that landmarks like The Wolfman (1941) and An American Werewolf in London (1981) dashed through with predatory urgency. The ponderous pace isn’t all bad, however: It gives Good Manners the chance to simmer in its dense atmosphere of sorrow and doom, offering a welcome counterpoint to the campiness of dodgy CGI metamorphosis and a literal torch-and-pitchfork mob. The film concludes with a markedly ambiguous moment that seems to preclude a traditional happy ending, which is of a piece with its open-ended thematic character. Depending on the angle, Good Manners can be regarded as the story of a mother protecting her queer child from a resurgent fascist political climate … or that of a gay woman anxiously navigating her straight son’s nascent, snarling pubescence. Or it might just be an admonishment to never feed kids red meat.

Good Manners screens Friday, Nov. 2 at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov 11 at 8:20 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.