Inevitably, families fall apart. Not all of them out of malice or spite, but more because of time and growth. At the very core of raising a family is the idea that someday you will watch your children leave you, and this, of course, will upend the very thing you have been trying to hold together for so many years. But what happens when that upending moment comes early, when the eldest on his way out the door is only 16 years old, but the opportunity he’s granted is once in a lifetime? This is the question at the heart of “Loveling,” a small-scale family drama from Brazil that suffers under the weight of its lack of narrative ambition and uneven quality, despite the revelatory performances at its core.

“Loveling” is the story of a family used to improvising. When the lock on the front door breaks, Klaus (a sad-eyed and wonderful Otávio Müller), the family patriarch, simply nails the door shut and installs a ladder out a window. The middle child, Rodrigo (Luan Teles), doesn’t have a case for his tuba, and thus carries it with him everywhere. The youngest children, a pair of rambunctious twins, are hurricanes of reckless energy. And the eldest, Fernando (Konstantinos Sarris), is an excellent handball player who earns himself a spot on a team in Germany that will require him to emancipate himself from his family in order to move abroad. But really, “Loveling” belongs to Karine Teles, who brings to life Irene, the mother who stands in the eye of this storm, attempting to hold everything and everyone together.

While Fernando’s offer to head to Germany is the most pressing issue for the family (he has only twenty days to decide and get his things in order), life elsewhere certainly isn’t easy. Irene’s sister must flee from her husband after he hits her and find refuge with Irene’s already chaotic family. After the lock on the front door stopped working, the house around them literally starts to collapse. The copy and print store that Klaus runs is in the red. It’s a miracle, though, that the drama that consumes Irene’s family never feels melodramatic. Director Gustavo Pizzi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Karine Teles, manages to keep control of the tone throughout and fit the histrionics neatly into the realm of recognizable family dynamics. This time of crisis, “Loveling” seems to say, is normal, some skewed version of the changes every family confronts.

Where Pizzi’s film stutters, though, is in the construction of the narrative. Forward motion is hard to come by. Instead, “Loveling” is a disparate series of desperate interactions between Irene and her family and Irene and the world. And while the inevitable crescendo does arrive, it doesn’t ever feel cohesive with the many threads the film weaves. But maybe that’s the point: life isn’t cohesive. Just because you put yourself and all of your emotions into one messy facet of your life doesn’t mean that it will be the thing that ultimately causes you to come undone. Still, “Loveling” is often awkwardly paced and unintentionally directionless, which hampers some of the tension of the most important scenes. Which is a shame, because Teles as Irene is phenomenal and some of her finest moments feel squandered.

Still, “Loveling” manages to shine whenever Teles is one the screen. This, in part, comes from the life that it gives to her. While Irene may be a mother intent on holding her family together and taking the burdens of everyone she loves onto her shoulders, she also has her own life. Much of the film is devoted to Irene’s high school graduation, an accomplishment that she clearly feels is long overdue but one she is nonetheless deeply proud of. In this way, Pizzi and Teles’ film muddies the waters of motherhood by refusing to cast the matriarch as simply the matriarch. She is her own woman and her emotional life is just as complex as all of the men who surround her. And for that nuance, “Loveling” manages to transcend many of its missteps and become a warm and lovely portrait of the personhood at the heart of motherhood.

On top of it all, Teles’ magnificent performance is beautifully captured by Pedro Faerstein’s tender cinematography. But like with much of the film, Faerstein’s work often varies in quality too much for its own good, with some shots being so perfect as to highlight those that aren’t. Paired with a similarly stuttering score from Daniel Roland, Maximiliano Silveira and Pedro Sá, and “Loveling” becomes a movie of great highs and awkward lows, the sort of film that inevitably becomes a sign of all the great things everyone involved will eventually do, rather than a testament to what they’ve done. [B-]

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