TIFF 2021 | The Other Tom (Rodrigo Plá, Laura Santullo, Mexico/USA)

By Angelo Muredda

Single mom Elena (Julia Chavez) tries to do right by her scampish ten-year-old son Tom (Israel Rodríguez Bertorelli) despite the interventions of the byzantine Texas school system in Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo’s minor-key drama The Other Tom, based on Santullo’s novel. The filmmakers do well to balance their kitchen-sink realism and compositional austerity with a delicate tone and a keen eye for the colourful ephemera of working-class life, noticing contingent details like the way sliding medical doodads in a doctor’s office can become a bored kid’s plaything in a pinch. These flashes of the quotidian add both texture and levity to a script that, at times, gets a bit oversaturated with Big Issues: they help keep the film from becoming a scolding position paper on schools’ normative assaults on students with behavioural challenges, or on the callousness of medical providers that overmedicate their young clients before they’ve even holistically assessed them as people. 

The question of whether Tom is depressed, angry, neurodivergent, or simply misdiagnosed by an overzealous psychiatric nurse (who mostly meets him through Zoom appointments) remains genuinely and productively ambiguous thanks to the performance by Bertorelli, a mercurial and feral presence who eludes easy categorization. Chavez is less of a natural, and is stilted at times in her heavily scripted exchanges, including a speech about what a fool she was to miss the way her son’s medication has turned him into a kind of hollowed-out imposter. She’s far stronger in moments where Tom’s irritable behaviour and unsavoury compulsions momentarily strip Elena of her motherly armour and reveal an exhausted young guardian with a Janus-like relationship to her charge, going from loving to resentful and back again in a heartbeat.

More from the Magazine