The Other Tom, 2021.
Written and directed by Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo.
Starring Julia Chávez and Israel Rodríguez Bertorelli.
A mother risks losing custody of her son when she refuses to continue medicating his ADHD, after an accident alerts her to the drugs’ side-effects.
Regular collaborating filmmakers Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo team up to deliver an adaptation of Santullo’s own novel “El otro Tom,” which while perhaps too slight for some tastes, gets to the deeply-felt core of a complex dilemma.
Elena (Julia Chávez) is a young mother working a gruelling manual labour job in order to provide for herself and her nine-year-old son Tom (Israel Rodríguez), whose fitful, aggressive behaviour at school has led to a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Though Elena only wants to do what’s best for Tom, she becomes concerned when his prescribed medication causes him to become withdrawn and later exhibit potentially self-destructive tendencies. But when Elena makes the decision to no longer medicate her son, she faces stern pushback from the local authorities, who seek to characterise her as an unfit mother and threaten to take Tom away.
Elena’s medical quandary is just one part of the film’s broader character study of a woman’s love for her son, committed to doing whatever it takes to care for him – though often finding herself questioning what exactly that is.
Elena works hard to earn money, but is then too tired to help Tom with his homework, and after promising to save up to pay for Tom to visit his estranged father, Elena finds herself having to shell out cash for a new car instead. These sacrifices aren’t easy for any child to understand, let alone one as quick-tempered as Tom, and the film’s every moment captures the quiet, thankless dignity of a woman trying to keep her family unit afloat.
Despite its subject matter, The Other Tom is less interested in pathologising its young title character than examining him in his element and asking questions. It’s worth making the strict distinction that this film is not inherently anti-medication or anti-science, but takes aim at Big Pharma incentivising mass pacification through chemistry, where side effects aren’t always fully disclosed to the recipients.
Elena is quite understandably alarmed at how the various cocktails of medication appear to narcotise Tom, stripping him of his spirit, hard-going though it might often be. Plá and Santullo’s script also touches on the finer psychological nuances of knee-jerk diagnoses, that they’re liable to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts; tell someone they’re “off” and they’ll be treated that way by others, as Tom learns first-hand at school. After all, what is “normal,” anyway?
The event which gives Elena cause for distress in the first place – a mid-film accident in a car involving Tom – would be upsetting in any context, but through the lens of medication which denies a child their own sense of self, it becomes utterly crushing. It gives Elena the resolve to bristle against what is allegedly “best” for her son, though the elliptical resolution – or lack thereof – leaves plenty uncertain, as is life.
Plá and Santullo’s patient filmmaking lingers long on seemingly mundane sights which gradually tease out greater character details, placing Elena and Tom at the center of the frame as the world glides on by around them. Yet as handsome as Odei Zabaleta’s lensing is, The Other Tom is a film that thrives most on the strength of its central two-hander.
First-time actress Julia Chávez is an authentic picture of simmering frustration; from first minute to almost-last, her youthful face looks chipped away by life and the crushing weight of trying to figure out what’s best for Tom. Her chemistry with co-star Israel Rodríguez, also a first-timer, is exceptional in its poles of warmth and hostility, while Rodriguez’s mischief lends the film some much-needed comic relief. For instance, after Tom crosses paths with a man who stays the night in his mother’s bed, he hilariously tells him, “My dad is going to fuck you up when he sees you.”
If there’s anything to fault here, it’s perhaps the slightly overextended 111-minute runtime; the filmmakers are certainly in no rush to tell their story, which ambles its way to a vague finish, the abruptness of which may leave some frustrated. But it’s the achingly resonant depiction of motherly love that’s likely to truly stick with viewers.
The Other Tom tackles a thorny issue with empathy and understanding, girded at all times by Julia Chávez and Israel Rodríguez’s deeply naturalistic performances.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.