She has a chip on her shoulder. We can see it in her eyes and hear it in her sarcasm when dealing with a case worker at the welfare office.
And there’s something about that child at her feet that isn’t quite right. The kid doesn’t speak, with a long mop of unkempt hair hiding the eyes in the middle of manic moments of acting-out. Mom seems barely interested in keeping the child under control.
She drives a forklift at work and brings men home to her latchkey 8-9 year-old.
“My dad is going to f— you up when he sees you,” the kid warns tonight’s “date.” Later, Mom is warned to “speak loudly to” a teacher because “he’s going deaf,” we come to appreciate the child’s wit and mean streak.
But it’s not until “Tom” is expelled from school that we figure out that this is “The Other Tom,” that he’s a boy and that he’s the boy whom this film is about.
And what’s more, “The Other Tom” isn’t about gender dysphoria, no matter how feminine Tom (Israel Rodriguez) looks and sounds, no matter who the teacher mistakes him for in class.
Is that an unintentional bit of misdirection from co-writers/directors Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo? n This movie trips-up expectations more than once as we see this story of a troubled (ADHD) child and the struggling mother who tries to figure out the medication the school system suggests, or if it is “changing” Tom for the worse.
Which Tom might mother Elena (Julia Chavez) figure is the “real” Tom, and which “The Other Tom?”
The quiet, immersive film is largely seen from Elena’s point of view, not the warmest single mom, a woman with a short temper and no patience for a child constantly testing her.
She barely reacts to his many torrents of “I HATE yous.”
Tom lashes out, time and again, and her neglect/reward style of childrearing isn’t cutting it. The school intervenes after he hits a teacher in fury over something he’s sure his mother forgot to pack for him for class. Tom’s “impulsive, aggressive, abnormal behavior” is disrupting school and causing Tom to fail.
His chilly mother can only mollify him. The system can’t deal with him and teachers and administrators are pretty blunt with Elena about what he needs, and in what doses.
“The Other Tom” struggles to stay on the fence about what is best for the child, who is plainly out of control and miserable “before,” and troubled but “manageable” and seemingly happier “after.”
The school system in this film is portrayed as officious and inflexible, almost hellbent on medicating this kid “for his own good.” His mother comes off as the queen of bad decisions — about men, about who she takes advice from about her son, about the promises she makes Tom that she can’t or won’t keep.
But the disorienting nature of “The Other Tom” is one of its strengths. Even parents with access to all the information (and sometimes disinformation) have an impossible time wrestling with this decision, the fear of its consequences and the alarm and outrage any parent would feel if it seems “the system” is forcing something on her kid that she can’t fully understand.
When Elena reels from one side of the debate to the other, we reel with her. Every time she makes a choice the film seems to agree it’s the right one, although we’re allowed to we ponder consequences Elena doesn’t grasp, and we wonder if Mom’s rashness is just a milder form of Tom’s problem.
Even as the film wanders about and the emotional bond between mother and child is seriously lacking i this story and these performances, there’s still something engrossing about seeing a mother’s journey through the trials and errors of ensuring her child has an opportunity to learn and at least a shot at a normal, healthy and happy life — with or without pills.
Rating: unrated, sex, nudity, profanity
Cast: Julia Chavez, Israel Rodriguez
Credits: Scripted and directed by Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo. An Outsider release.
Running time: 1:51