One of the most unjustly overlooked movies of 2018, Brazil’s Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras) is a bewitching blend of horror, fantasy and musical that veers from humorous to heartbreaking, romantic to tragic, all while maintaining the sort of childlike sense of wonder and storybook lore that could draw comparisons to Guillermo del Toro’s body of work. In particular, it’s easy to see similarities between it and his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, with its story of an interspecies relationship struggling to survive in an unforgiving world, but rest assured, Good Manners is strong enough to forge its own identity.
It’s a movie best viewed without learning too much of the plot beforehand, but the basic setup finds a woman named Clara (Isabél Zuaa), desperate for money, taking a job as a live-in babysitter for single mother-to-be Ana (Marjorie Estiano). On the surface, Clara — a reserved, poor, black lesbian — and Ana — a wealthy, white heterosexual socialite — seem to have little in common, but the two share a loneliness that draws them together. Their bond is put to the test, however, when Ana begins exhibiting strange behavior every full moon that goes way beyond the usual pregnancy cravings.
Good Manners is a modern fairytale of such astounding beauty, charm and heart, you have to wonder why it hasn’t received more attention. Despite its relatively small scope, it has the gloss of a big-budget production, complete with excellent practical and CGI effects and lush cinematography that paints São Paulo as a magical, moonlit urban kingdom. The sense of wonder it generates is topped off by a judicious sprinkling of musical numbers that, like a Greek chorus, give a peek into the mindset of the main character and the turmoil surrounding her.
And make no mistake, the main character is Clara. In most films, the glamorous Ana would be the lead, but Good Manners is not most films. It’s a movie about outcasts and the solace they find in one another, and as is the case with so many countries around the world, the black minority population is as downtrodden an outcast as they come. I won’t pretend to know the intricacies of race in Brazil (like if Clara would really be considered “white”), but I know that, as part of the legacy of slavery, the darker-skinned people tend to be poorer and less educated with fewer opportunities to succeed.
The script never overtly mentions race, but the disparity between the two women in Good Manners speaks for itself. Similarly subtle are the film’s commentary on class, sexual orientation and gender politics. It never beats you over the head with its messages, though; it’s all wonderfully nuanced, just as the characters themselves are nuanced, their layers peeling back as the story unfolds to reveal unexpected depth. The selfie-taking Ana, for instance, could’ve been a vacuous cliche of a spoiled rich girl, but she ends up sympathetic — a likable, buoyant source of fun to offset Clara’s more sober demeanor.
Both Zuaa and Estiano excel in their roles, the latter riding a tumultuous rollercoaster of emotions while the former gradually evolves from cautious outsider to fully invested family member. Each embodies the maternal spirit, though, in what becomes a touching tribute to the power of love. Of course, from a horror perspective, the film is light on scares and gore, but genre fans who enjoyed the magic of The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth should appreciate the mystical draw of Good Manners. Let’s hope enough people catch wind of this endearing, outside-the-box fable that filmmakers Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra get the opportunity to continue to spread their own form of magic to the world at large.