At six feet tall, Brazilian actor Naomi Nero’s androgyny stands out like an explanation point in Don’t Call Me Son. He portrays teenager Pierre, a shaggy-haired bass player in a pop band who slips into casual, club-going hook-ups. Bored in high school, Pierre’s life lessons begin when he discovers he was abducted at birth and was originally named Felipe by his biological birth parents. In his new bourgeois lifestyle, Pierre/Felipe is urged to conform into an ideal dutiful son and sports-loving boy, but he won’t be constrained. His too-big-to-be-defined, not-fitting-in, is director Anna Muylaert’s subject.
The overused term “identity politics” boxes-in a movie like Moonlight, which is nothing but an appeal to political identity. Muylaert deals with Pierre/Felipe’s individuality as partly a social construction (accidents of birth and class circumstances), but primarily as a personal mystery. She uses an exploratory visual style—too many off-center compositions and too much shallow focus—that loosens concentration so that Pierre/Felipe always slips out-of-grasp. Shaving his chest hair and treasure trail or suddenly deciding to wear a dress could be rebellion or just deliberate eccentricity. Even in the hot moment of mutual seduction with his band’s sexy goateed lead singer (Renan Tenca), Pierre/Felipe’s character cannot be check-listed. That’s both unsettling and refreshing. (Emily Dickinson’s shocking 1891 poem “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” could be the source of this film’s new identity query as well as Terence Davies’ upcoming A Quiet Passion.)
This sullen drag-teen (Naomi Nero’s performance is so reserved it’s almost unreadable) feels odd since Muylaert seems to be in the process of finding her own story as she films it. There are nearly improvisational leaps and gaps in the story line, but at the same time there are many startling and touching discoveries: the new family’s posing for a crowded selfie; the new father and mother’s kindly then domineering attempts at parenting; and the scene where Pierre/Felipe’s new brother (Daniel Botelho) and former sister (another stolen child played by Lais Dias) almost magically encountering each other in a classic expose of adolescent peer pressure.
In these “found” moments, Muylaert gives insight into non-conformist behavior and society’s inevitable acceptance, while capturing changing cultural styles. Like the statuesque Naomi Nero, the social flux in Don’t Call Me Son cannot be ignored. In Muylaert’s observation of unpredictable behavior, the subversiveness of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning rubs up against the normality of John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes. This portrait of how human beings adapt makes Don’t Call Me Son altogether queer and trans and humanist.
Don't Call Me a Son is now playing in select theaters.