Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"At the heart of it is the complex relationship between mother and son." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

The juvenile scarlet ibis is black, we are told. Actually it’s a sort of muddy grey colour with white bits, but let’s not quibble. The point is that this is its natural colour. It takes on its stunning red plumage as it enters into adulthood, as a result of its diet of red crabs. In other words, it deviates from its natural status as a result of its behaviour. With that in mind, the pastor (Isac Graça ) suggests, any person, no matter how difficult it may seem, can simply change their behaviour and revert to their natural state.

The difficulty with this, of course, is that it’s natural for the ibis to eat crabs – and that the world is more wonderful with a dash of scarlet.

“It’s tough for people like you, out there,” Suellen (Maeve Jinkings) declares during one of several heated exchanges with her son Tiquinho (Kauan Alvarenga). It’s a little slip in her efforts to cultivate a tough image of her own, a hint at the love and protective instinct which lie at the root of her desire to change his behaviour. His room is Barbie-pink and illuminated by fairy lights, yet she seems to have fully faced up to his difference only now, as result of workplace colleagues sharing one of his influencer videos. The closest of these, Telma (Aline Marta Maia), warns her that if he doesn’t get help soon then he will be stuck that way for life. It’s she who suggests the pastor to Suellen, who flinches at his R$1,650 fee. “He’s European.” she explains.

How is a humble toll booth operator going to come up with R$1,650? It so happens that Suellen has recently caught her boyfriend, Arauto (Thomas Aqino), hiding stolen goods in her home. She’s deeply opposed to criminal behaviour, but she wants to save her son. It doesn’t take long for an idea to occur to her – but like everything else in her life and Arauto’s, it’s messy, driven by emotion, and not very well thought through.

Tiquinho’s views on the matter don’t really enter into it. He’s 17 and still living under his mother’s roof. He has a lot going on in his life, with his videos and dance classes and singing. He performs at a wedding in a red ibis costume. But he’s young and lacks the self-assurance to chart his own course, especially as he’s nursing a recently broken heart. This characterisation allows director Carolina Markowicz (who also worked with Jinkings on 2022’s Charcoal) to point out the psychological harm done by conversion therapy even when no violence is present. Where other recent films have focused on its extremes, she highlights the miserable, gruelling experience of being forced to sit there all day being told that one is damaged and immoral, being reminded of how one is disappointing the loved one who is being financially preyed upon in the process.

As in Charcoal, Markowicz demonstrates a love of the absurdities which are very much a part of such morally-focused yet ill-considered lives. Tiquinho’s feelings for men are very much focused on romance, but in the pastor’s workshop he is made to watch material which is much more sexual. A fellow attendee, Rick (Caio Macedo), points out that whilst the group may be grim, it’s a better place to meet people than dating apps. Despite being treated as a moral failure, Tiquinho is protective of his mother and appalled by Arauto’s Devil-may-care, self-centred version of masculinity, whilst Arauto in turn hopes to provoke Tiquinho into becoming aggressive and therefore a proper man. Meanwhile Telma, who boasts about her 39 years of marriage, has an extracurricular habit which will make many viewers’ jaws fall open, and her excuse for it is even better.

It’s not just the big dramatic storylines or the comedy which drive this film, however. At the heart of it is the complex relationship between mother and son – one which is clearly full of love, although neither of them is able to articulate that very well. As dependencies shift and the scale of the characters’ ambitions is firmly put in context, it’s this emotional bond which creates a sense of potential, of the lingering possibility of something better. It’s a little bit of magic in a film acutely aware of the mundane. Though there are no weak performances here, Jinkings really shines.

Screened as part of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, this film serves to confirm Markowicz as one of Brazil’s most impressive rising talents, and it’s well worth your time.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2023
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Suellen, a toll booth attendant, realises she can use her job to raise some extra money illegally. But this is only for a noble cause: to send her son to an expensive gay conversion workshop led by a renowned foreign priest.

Director: Carolina Markowicz

Writer: Carolina Markowicz

Starring: Maeve Jinkings, Thomas Aquino, Isac Graça, Caio Macedo, Aline Marta Maia, Kauan Alvarenga

Year: 2022

Runtime: 102 minutes

Country: Brazil, Portugal

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