Playing out like something that might have emerged from the mind of an early, less depressive Todd Solondz, The Other End has the engaging habit of overturning all the expectations it sets up. Felipe Scholl’s debut casts a fresh eye over the younger guy/older woman trope to create a dissection of middle-class hypocrisies and neuroses that’s fresh, light of touch and disarming, one which manages to keep one step ahead of the viewer — though without appearing just smart, and with its feet always firmly on the emotional ground. It’s the kind of subject matter that could play well anywhere, and hopefully, following its two Rio awards, fests will be prepared to take a chance on a distinctive new voice in Brazilian cinema.
Early scenes suggest that we’re about to enter a dark, nasty world. Middle-class bored kid, bookish Diogo (Tom Karabachian, positively dripping in teen heartthrob appeal) calls up older women, the patients of his psychiatrist mother Clarice (Denise Fraga). A la Philip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness, Diogo masturbates when they answer. Then he carefully deposits his protein shake into a plastic folder and labels it. One of the women is Angela (Karine Teles, from The Second Mother), in a depressive state after being left by her husband.
After a second call, Angela drinks herself into a stupor; realizing that something’s wrong, Diogo rushes over and takes her to a hospital. It’s every troubled teen’s worst nightmare: The truth about Diogo’s fantasies must come out, and does, after a little elementary detective work by Angela. But unexpectedly, Angela rather likes being the object of this gorgeous young fellow’s attentions, hilariously calling the calls his “homage” to her before unexpectedly kissing him. Like others in the film, it’s a scene fraught with dangers which could easily have been merely risible, but it plays entirely convincingly.
Angela and Diogo are suddenly an item, sharing a bed while he plays her a terrible song he’s written. Meanwhile, the script is very sharp on Clarice’s moral blindness as a shrink, angrily reprimanding Angela and Diogo whilst unable to keep her own marriage alive: “What’s my son doing,” the shrink yells in one scene, “with a depressive 40-year-old with a history of self-harm?” But inevitably the relationship succumbs to social pressures, and before too long Diogo is back on the phone.
In other words, The Other End (which refers to Diogo’s phone conversations; the Portuguese title translates as the rather dull “Talk to Me”) is one of those movies that lay bare the hidden horrors behind respectable bourgeois surfaces, which wittily reveals how convention-bound the liberal, progressive classes actually are.
The role of Angela demands a high level of nuance from Teles, and in this Rio festival award-winning performance she delivers it, sometimes under the unflinching gaze of close-up head shots. Angela could too easily become merely pathetic, but her joyfulness at having Diogo in her life — potentially the relationship is the perfect solution to the problems of both partners — means that they both enter a neurosis-free world where normal moral rules don’t apply, and where they can be themselves for the first time. When Clarice protests that her son is only 17, Angela replies that he’s nearly 18: the film makes her reply feel entirely justified, and we wonder, like her, why anyone would ever wish to break up something so good. Karabachian’s wide, ultra-charming grin and social confidence as Diogo is the perfect counterpoint to Angela’s insecurities.
The scenes between the two of them, which should be full of awkwardness, never are: Significantly, the awkwardness is reserved for other scenes, for example of Diogo’s bored family sitting around the dinner table with nothing to say.
Special mention should be made of Diogo’s wonderful, hypochondriac kid sister Mariana (Anita Ferraz): Her bro/sis relationship with Diogo feels wonderfully real, and shows that Sholl can handle “normal” emotional ranges as well as the out-there ones the film spends more time exploring.
The film is set mainly in domestic interiors, which Leo Bittencourt’s visuals render as either suitably claustrophobic or suitably intimate. Choice of music is spot-on throughout, ending with a version of The Electric Presidents’ uplifting “Safe and Sound,” previously used in the U.S. TV show The Blacklist — but crucially, the music is never used merely to signal emotion.
Production company: Syndrome Films
Cast: Karine Teles, Tom Karabachian, Denise Fraga, Emílio De Mello, Anita Ferraz
Director, screenwriter: Felipe Sholl
Producer: Daniel Van Hoogstraten
Director of photography: Leo Bittencourt
Editor: Luisa Marques
Venue: Rio de Janeiro Film Festival (Official Section)
No rating, 92 minutes