TIFF21 REVIEW: El otro Tom [The Other Tom] [2021]

Rating: 4 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 111 minutes
    Release Date: 2021 (Mexico) / October 14th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Outsider Pictures
    Director(s): Rodrigo Plá & Laura Santullo
    Writer(s): Rodrigo Plá & Laura Santullo

You never keep your promises.

Tom (Israel Rodriguez) is an uncontrollable youth in school and at home. Is it because he has ADHD? Probably. Is it also because he lives in a volatile household with a single mother who has justifiable anger issues augmented by people (Tom’s father Julien doesn’t pay child support) and institutions (government, education, medical) constantly failing them? Definitely. While all these issues are present throughout Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo‘s (based on her novel) El otro Tom [The Other Tom], however, it’s a single aspect of the first that’s focused upon most: should kids Tom’s age be prescribed medication? It’s a legitimate question with a lot of complexity when you factor in supplemental therapy, coping mechanisms, and environment. I don’t believe the filmmakers ever truly acknowledge that added context.

What results is thus a reductive look at a complicated issue that pushes major considerations to the side to push an agenda. When Elena (Julia Chavez) is told that Tom needs medicine, she blindly agrees without asking any questions. When the father of one of Tom’s friends tells her some of those drugs (he doesn’t ask which is being prescribed) have nasty side effects, she ignores him without asking any questions. And when a horrible accident arises—one obviously precipitated by Elena’s latest broken promise in a string of promises that she uses to placate her son—wherein the doctor wonders aloud about the potential for suicide, she instantly takes him off the meds, again, without asking any questions. Cue the “be proactive parents” messaging that never arrives.

Why? Because the film doesn’t want to engage in Elena’s complicity. It wants to keep her the impoverished, single mother doing her best against a world that’s out to get her. Plá and Santullo actively make everyone else bad guys—with good reason since Tom’s teacher is a monster and his principal isn’t much better—and ultimately refuse to even consider Elena has her moments too. They let her act on whims. They let her be selfish. They let her be human. And it’s great. I think Chavez does a fantastic job with an emotionally taxing role. Being human comes with fallibility, though. Is she sometimes proven wrong? Yes. Similar to keeping the complexity of Tom’s diagnosis in the background, they always stop short of confronting that too.

The rest can’t therefore stop from becoming a repetitive cycle of letting this poor boy down. Tom is put through the ringer to the point where he mentions the concept alluded to in the title. As soon as he comes off the medicine, his old scattershot tendencies come back. He’s not dumb. He knows that he’s difficult to be around and he knows things were better. Tom wonders about this notion of two selves—yet another crucial piece to the social and behavioral effects of the disorder that quickly disappears—and grows frustrated. That in turn makes Elena more frustrated too until she lashes out at those actually trying to help. From pills to camp to ignoring the problem altogether, the film dangerously posits the latter as sound.

I get it. Ignoring the ADHD to finally admit other issues are in play is a necessary step as long as it proves an additional one rather than a replacement. Look within and hear what it is that Tom has been trying to say. He misses his father. He’s losing trust in his mother. And he’s lashing out. Taking a breath to slow down and fix those issues might be the foundation to really get ahead of this thing, but not at the cost of what was already working. This is especially true since Tom never answers Elena’s question about the aforementioned accident being intentional. The film exploits that as a reason to write-off pharmaceuticals entirely rather than utilize it as a conversation starter about pill-pushing capitalistic greed.

That’s what I cannot sweep under the rug despite the good that’s also present. Chavez and Rodriguez deliver authentic performances in first-time roles that shine a light on harrowing circumstances, but the script they’re beholden to won’t let us embrace them outside of the construct that all professionals are irrefutably out to prey upon the less fortunate. Things would be different if Plá and Santullo made it known that the characters on-screen were intentionally profiting off Elena’s stress, but it doesn’t. They hope silently “both sides-ing” the issue exonerates them from taking a stand, but it can’t when the text vocally aligns with one. The Other Tom is thus rendered a conversation ender. It shuts every argument down just like Elena does and Tom is left suffering alone.

courtesy of TIFF

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