In “The Other Tom,” maternal impulse goes up against authoritarian guidance, and the face-off isn’t as simple or sentimental as you might expect. Co-directing for the first time with his personal and creative partner Laura Santullo, Uruguayan-Mexican director Rodrigo Plá brings his customary technical finesse and tonal restraint to a topical subject vulnerable to emotive, heavy-handed treatment. Debates and thinkpieces abound on the widespread medication of the so-called Adderall generation, but Plá and Santullo’s bruise-tender film avoids a dogmatic stance — even as Elena, gutsily played by newcomer Julia Chávez, has her mind firmly changed on the subject.
Her son Tom is a handful, often acting out and refusing to take the medication he’s been rigidly prescribed for his apparent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For Elena, her challenge is more than managing the boy, as depicted in a scene set at his ninth birthday party, when another mother asks, “Don’t you want him to be normal? Let him be normal.” The unsolicited advice is thoughtless and perhaps only accidentally cruel, though to Elena — an unmarried, working-class Mexican immigrant living hand-to-mouth in El Paso, Texas — it’s just another voice in a whole system of them out to undermine and overwhelm her parenting.
Having bowed in Venice’s Orizzonti competition in September, Plá and Santullo’s first (predominantly) English-language film looks set to continue a healthy global festival run, while its U.S.-oriented subject matter and setting ought to make “The Other Tom” the duo’s most widely exposed work to date. Distributors may wish to play up the film’s conversation-starting aspects — particularly Stateside, where a steady rise in ADHD diagnoses and treatment plans has been amply reported — though presenting the film as any kind of hot-button issue movie would be a disservice to a quiet, character-driven drama that builds to a suspended, even nebulous conclusion.
From the outset, the directors and cinematographer Odei Zabaleta use coolly composed point-of-view shots to stress Elena’s isolation and lack of aid as a single parent to a challenging child. On multiple occasions, we view her from the opposite side of a service counter — whether in a welfare office, a doctor’s consultation room or a rural delivery outpost — trying to hold things together as her attention is repeatedly diverted by Tom (Israel Rodriguez Bertorelli), whose mental and physical unrest is near-constant. “He likes to distract himself with stupidities to make my life shittier,” she complains to a doctor.
That’s not an overly kind or caring thing to say, but what ultimately makes “The Other Tom” credible and sympathetic is that Elena is no sainted Mother of the Year candidate. Rather, she’s a young, vulnerable woman doing her best to get by on scarcely anything at all, working long hours as a warehouse forklift driver, with no child support from Tom’s dad back in Mexico. Of course her in-over-her-head exhaustion gets the better of her. The film’s intimate scenes of mother-son discord are remarkable, played with raw, nerve-pushing testiness by two first-time actors. Almost permanently in motion, his expressions shifting and collapsing as rapidly as Tom’s thoughts, Rodriguez Bertorelli is an extraordinary find, never defaulting to cute, easy reactions. Rather like Helena Zengel in the recent, thematically comparable “System Crasher,” his is a kinetic, unruly child performance that appropriately tries the viewer’s patience.
An ADHD diagnosis and ensuing medication plan initially seems the answer to Elena’s problems — if not Tom’s, as his ebullience turns sluggish and solemn. As one anti-meds parent warns Elena that he could be suffering depressive side effects, Tom’s school, as well as child protective services, issue threatening instructions to keep him on the pills. Who knows best? Perhaps not Mother, though caught in this bind, Elena has only her gut instinct to follow. Plá and Santullo’s script, based on the latter’s novel, is attentive not only to the medical aspects of the family’s situation, but to subtle factors of class, gender and racial discrimination that Elena, as a young, attractive, heavily tattooed Latina woman, quite fairly feels are working against her.
The combination of these perceived microaggressions and Tom’s escalating distress eventually pushes her into a series of drastic decisions that may have some viewers aghast and others cheering her on. Yet “The Other Tom,” though fully sympathetic to its characters’ plight, resists an endorsement of its own, while Zabaleta’s pristinely composed lensing continues to hold us at some distance from a two-person family that at once wants help and wants to be left alone. This is a different proposition from the filmmakers’ last feature, 2015’s “A Monster With a Thousand Heads,” in which a desperate woman took on the flawed medical insurance industry, to rousing, barnstorming effect. Here, things end with questions rather than closure, in a sunlit limbo that we know cannot last — though for this beleaguered mother and son, they’ll take temporary peace where they can get it.