It’s fairly easy to say that you’ve never seen a film quite like Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras). This Brazilian odyssey mixes elements of comedy, fantasy, horror and dark drama to tell a story that continually subverts expectations. It’s also made with a resonant sense of emotional depth that gets under the skin, so the story and characters become more involving as the movie gets increasingly bizarre.
It’s set in a dreamy version of Sao Paulo, where Clara (Isabel Zuaa) applies for the job as a nanny to Ana (Marjorie Estiano), a wealthy young woman who is living on her own in a posh high-rise flat as she expects her first child. Clara has no experience, but Ana hires her anyway, and their bond grows into a romance during the final months of Ana’s pregnancy. But there are some worrying signs as Ana begins sleepwalking whenever the moon is full, and Clara witnesses some genuinely freaky things, forcing her to take action. After one shocking incident, the story jumps forward seven years, as Ana’s son Joel (Miguel Lobo) begins to exert his independence both at home and at school.
Saying anything more would be a spoiler, but what follows involves a wacky landlady (Cida Moreira), Joel’s adventures with his school friends (Felipe Kenji and Nina Medeiros), a secret locked room and a bag of diamonds. There are also several gorgeous musical numbers. Writer-directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas inventively bridge the major tonal shifts with wit and style, focussing tightly on the characters to bring everything together into an epic journey that’s funny, scary and ultimately moving. With the full moon shimmering in the sky, and the city’s glass skyscrapers gleaming on the horizon like Oz, Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras) evokes a deep sense of yearning even as it gleefully freaks out the audience.
The secret to making this work lies in the earthy performances. These are real people who take extraordinary situations in stride. Zuaa is wonderfully matter-of-fact about everything, from her burning desire for Ana to her maternal instincts toward Joel. Estiano gets the funniest moments as the sweetly dim Ana, while Lobo adds a terrific blast of stubborn curiosity. The relationships between them are powerful, almost bursting with a sense of destiny. And it’s clear that Clara would do anything within her power to protect the people she loves.
This emotional core is what makes Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras) both gripping and unforgettable. The filmmakers expertly blend jagged humour with wrenching horror, keeping the audience laughing and gasping from start to finish. As viewers, we are drawn into each dilemma that the plot presents, and we’re as unsure as Clara is about what needs to be done next. So it’s inspiring to see her kick into action and make some mind-boggling decisions. This is a story about rising to the challenge of whatever life throws at us, being true to ourselves and, even more importantly, to those we love. It may be utterly bonkers, but it’s also the kind of movie that leaves us exhilarated.