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Good Manners
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by Jay Seaver

"Appropriate in some situations, less so in others."
3 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL XX: "Good Manners" is one of those movies that is split close to right down the middle and thus sets itself up for a fall, because the odds that it's going to do two unusual things really well are slim. It's also possible that one just works better, making the other look bad. That's the case here; the first half works in a way that the second doesn't, even though it's not hard to imagine that part working well on its own or even if handled differently here.

It opens with Clara Marcedo (Isabél Zuaa), an unemployed woman behind on her rent to the point where her landlady (Cida Moreira) is starting to just walk into her apartment to take things to sell, arriving at a Sao Paolo high-rise for a job interview. Ana (Marjorie Estiano) is pregnant and needs some help around the apartment - she comes from a well-off family and has never really done much for herself - and a nanny after her baby is born. As the pair grow closer, it soon becomes clear that Ana is having an unusual pregnancy, with sleepwalking and alarming cravings reaching their peak during the full moon, and if what Ana reveals about the father is true… Well, it certainly explains what is going on with son Joel (Miguel Lobo) ten years later.

Both halves of the movie come at their material from different angles, using the idea of lycanthropy to tell stories of isolation and shame. It's less supernatural and more human in the first half, where Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano don't have to spend a lot of time playing horror tropes with a straight face. Instead, they just play lonely people feeling each other out, with Estiano's Ana especially interesting as she becomes more fully aware of how she's been exiled and shunned as the film goes on. She doesn't outwardly change that much, but it's enough for Zuaa's Clara and the audience to start seeing her as more than just a semi-clueless wealthy employer, but someone with the same sort of loneliness as her. As the fantastical elements become more important, it's easy to see the truth in how Clara's alarm quickly transmutes to protection.

After that, the second half is not necessarily less personal and emotional, but it feels like it comes from a different direction, like it started with the fine points of werewolf mythology as its starting point and then looked for the human story after that. What filmmakers Juliana Rojas & Marco Dutra are doing in this part of the film has a lot of a potential and "werewolf kid who has been hidden and restrained his whole life starts rebelling against his parents" is a heck of a hook, and not necessarily even much of a shift in theme from what came before. The execution is weaker in this case, as it turns out - more turns on specific events that can be tough to swallow whether they involve ignorant kids doing something impulsive or not. Nothing ever really surprises the audience very much, and the film falls short on the effects side to boot, needing a much scarier monster.

It doesn't help that Joel can sometimes be hard to like; between them, Rojas & Dutra and child actor Miguel Lobo are able to get the sad Joel down, but when Joel is bitter and reckless, they can't quite find the point where the audience can easily empathize with his anger despite the carnage that springs from his rebellion. There's a nice sort of warm tension between Joel and his mother, a two-way street paved with affection and fear, and tricky relationships with her friends. And though Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano are at their best in the first half, the good work carries through to the end.

And to give the Rojas & Dutra their due, there's something genuinely impressive about how many different things they're willing to try over the course of the movie. Ana's sleepwalking episodes feel properly surreal, for instance, and the reveal of Joel's "small bedroom" has a quick moment of "hey, neat!" before the proper reaction of it being messed up settles in. The segment where they're trying to set up a more nervy version of kids having an adventure out on their own never quite works, but the musical interludes wind up audacious enough to make Good Manners memorable.

The musical numbers remind me a bit of Bollywood movies, which often seem like they contain their own sequel. In this case, part II is different enough from part I that even if one prefers it, the whole thing is going to seem like a weird assembly. It's nevertheless ambitious enough to be interesting, and likely contains something to catch the interest of many potential viewers - maybe enough to work as a whole for some, too.

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originally posted: 05/11/18 11:03:18
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