2018 Film Essays

An Undercooked Genre Stew: Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ ‘Good Manners’

Television allows creators luxuries that film doesn’t. It’s a medium that accommodates characters experiencing different worlds, eras and phases of their own life often over long stretches of time (seasons and entire series). It’s much harder to successfully paint such broad canvases in film, where directors are tacitly obligated to adhere to central tones and themes.

Brazilian filmmakers, and longtime collaborators, Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas try to make a case against this with Good Manners, their genre-bending werewolf fantasy follow-up to 2011’s Hard Labor. But the film, which becomes a love story, coming of age drama, fairytale, folklore, musical and monster movie over 135 minutes, ends up feeling more like a truncated season of a CW program than a well corralled genre stew.

After Ana, a pregnant white woman and São Paulo resident, hires Clara, a steely black woman, to be her live-in nanny, the two begin a sexual relationship. Clara soon realizes her new job and relationship come with complications when she discovers Ana’s strange penchant for unconscious full-moon strolls for meat — be it a bag of raw beef from the fridge or a live rabbit found in the neighborhood.

Aesthetically, Dutra and Rojas place viewers in a fairytale. Ana’s apartment — where much of the film takes place — is colorful and starkly lit, and its extravagant view of the city skyline advertises a playful and queer world whimsically detached from the real São Paulo. The film’s environment is cultivated through matte paintings, animatronics and CGI, and though the directors cited the Disney classics Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as influences, Clara’s entrance to the apartment reminded me more of Belle’s stay in the Beast’s castle — and not just because Clara, too, becomes close with a beast.

The plot of Good Manners, built out originally from a dream of Dutra’s, provides a rich world to sink one’s teeth into and an audience surrogate through which to explore it with: a same-sex relationship that bridges class and race, wherein one half is dangerously pregnant — all dressed in the trimmings of a classic fairytale. Further, Ana details the origins of her pregnancy — and therein the film’s relationship to werewolf folklore — putting into place an It Follows-esque metaphor. It’s all table setting for an abundant, multivalent allegory that Dutra and Rojas spend the film slowly squandering with leaden pacing and reams of ideas.

In an interview with MUBI’s Gustavo Beck, the directors said the first cut of Good Manners was “very, very long,” and proved difficult to cut down to a manageable size. If I had my druthers, Dutra and Rojas would’ve gone in the opposite direction, expanding the film out to a TV series, thereby allowing them to flesh out what became abbreviated, but intriguing scenarios.

The film is split into thirds: 1) Clara’s relationship with the strangely pregnant Ana, 2) Clara’s raising of Ana’s wereson, Joel, and 3) Clara and Joel’s attempt to assimilate into society. Each third deserves multiple episodes, seasons even, rather than 30-45 minutes. As such, each distinct third is unexplored. The directors told Beck they saw the wolf child “as someone who is finding out something crucial about his own nature, the same way all of us do while growing up.” It’s obvious this is Dutra and Rojas’ intention, but it’s a perfect example of the many promising setups the duo don’t properly investigate.

On top of mismanaged potential, the overabundance of plot makes for a dreadful pace. By the time the third act arrives, the first feels like it past ages ago, retroactively feeling like a prolonged epilogue. And conversely, the climactic ending feels unearned and perfunctory, as if the directors knew where they wanted to end up but didn’t know how to get there.

My desire for a CW version of Good Manners was routinely provoked by the film’s odd relationship to TV, be it cinematographer Rui Poças’ interior lighting or its potentially inadvertent reminiscence to a handful of recent shows, such as Santa Clarita Diet and iZombie. There’s even an uncanny allusion to the Saved by the Bell episode “All in the Mall” (Season 4, Episode 16) in the film’s last third.

However, Dutra and Rojas do manage a more successful, and seemingly more intentional, homage with the sudden birth of Joel, which recalls the most iconic moment of David Cronenberg’s 1979 classic, The Brood. And like Cronenberg, the film’s body horror and sensory components are, unlike Joel, immaculately conceived.

Here’s where Good Manners comes alive, in small bursts of tangible sensations that surround Joel’s mysterious existence, whether it’s his violent birth or smaller, tension-packed moments where he’s chewing on meat or enduring his daily full-body shave. The film gains small bits of traction with Joel’s rearing, and before they’re squelched, existential questions of how Joel will assimilate and survive carry some weight. He bestows the film with an unpredictability as viewers, like Clara, don’t know what he’s capable of, but these moments are hammocked between too much flab.

Good Manners isn’t without its share of redeeming factors, to be sure, but Dutra and Rojas are simply hamstrung by their chosen medium, which pits an overabundance of ideas to a constricting runtime. I would say they swing for the fences if they weren’t aimed entirely in the wrong direction.

Shawn Glinis (@MrGlinis) is a freelance film critic. He’s a lifelong Midwesterner with a BA in film studies and an MA in media studies.