Venice 2021 review: The Other Tom (Rodrigo Plá & Laura Santullo)

“The Other Tom carries an abundance of meaning and portrays the real world in vivid, unforgettable detail that allows us to get a glimpse of another side of life.”

More often than not, film strives to tell us stories of people who are somewhat familiar to us, in settings that are fairly recognizable, even if they aren’t necessarily part of the individual viewer’s own life or personal experiences. This is the foundation on which The Other Tom (El otro Tom) is built, where directors Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo tell a gripping story of a mother and her son braving the challenges of a world neither one of them quite understands after a life-altering psychiatric diagnosis. An achingly beautiful parable that paints a vivid portrait of the kind of salt-of-the-earth people that are rarely afforded such a platform to have their stories told, this film is a devastating but heartfelt ode to those living on the margins of society, doing their best to survive the various challenges they encounter in their daily lives. The collaboration between the directors – this film being the fifth for Plá and the directorial debut for Santullo – brings about a stunning representation of ordinary life, the most raw details of the human condition represented on screen, resulting in a truly awe-inspiring, quietly meditative social realist drama that manages to cut to the core of everyday existence.

The Other Tom is primarily a love letter to mothers, telling the story of a young woman trying to raise her son in an environment that some may not consider ideal for a child, after he is diagnosed with ADHD and put on behaviour-altering medication, which presents an entirely new set of challenges. There are numerous socio-cultural factors embedded in this film, but it becomes very clear that the directors were more focused on the increasingly personal side of the story. The character Elena is by no means a perfect mother, demonstrating the undeniable fact that every parent has flaws – but instead of challenging her credibility as a mother, the film explores her undying devotion to her son, proving that shortcomings do not invalidate someone’s ability to be a good parent, especially when their efforts to survive are often in service of their children, who may not realize the sacrifices their parents have to make. Throughout this film, Plá and Santullo are paying tribute to parents and guardians, particularly those who do their best despite the circumstances that many find themselves in, showing that love is expressed in a multitude of different ways, and that it is often difficult to recognize until after the fact.

Plá and Santullo offer oscillating perspectives between the mother and son, the story alternating between their varying viewpoints as they move through their lives over the course of roughly one year. The Other Tom features a pair of staggering performances from the leads, working as a very effective two-hander between Julia Chavez and Israel Rodriguez, who effortlessly take on these seemingly simple roles that are brimming with complexity, turning in two of the most impressive performances of the year. Like the film, neither actor is interested in excess, instead remaining within the boundaries of what was required of them based on the tone of the story, and the level to which the filmmakers pitched these deep conversations. It’s truly surprising to discover that for both Chavez and Rodriguez, The Other Tom was their acting debut, since they not only appear to be perfectly at ease in front of the camera, but their natural chemistry also convinces us of the authenticity of the mother-son dynamic that is so integral to the film. This film certainly would not have succeeded had it not been for their spirited performances that match the nuances of the story that surrounds them at every turn.

The Other Tom finds beauty in the most unexpected places, telling the captivating story of a young mother and her troubled son working their way through a world that is increasingly hostile to their efforts to survive, but not enough to erode the limited but pivotal amount of optimism that propels them forward. This is a small but powerful film that offers viewers an unfurnished insight into the challenging realities many individuals on the lower end of the economic spectrum face on a daily basis. Embedded in this striking story of motherhood and defying the odds for the sake of a more hopeful day on the horizon are conversations centering around working-class malaise, the flawed welfare system and the role of education in underprivileged communities. This all serves as the foundation for this beautiful story of resilience, a hopeful account of two people embracing the obstacles presented to them, conveyed through a hard-hitting drama featuring some gentle touches of humour that help break the tension, but also contrast with the deep sadness at the heart of the story, which provokes thought and leaves us in a state of emotional vulnerability. The Other Tom carries an abundance of meaning and portrays the real world in vivid, unforgettable detail that allows us to get a glimpse of another side of life.