Elena ( Julia Chávez) is an exhausted single mother, working overtime to provide the necessities, constantly pleading with son Tom for peace and quiet. Tom (Israel Rodríguez Bertorelli) is not a peace and quiet kind of kid, his lack of focus an even bigger problem at school than at home. At first, the ADHD meds seem like a godsend. Tom is more focused, better behaved. But an accident makes Elena aware of some pretty significant side effects, and she ultimately decides to stop the meds.
Elena is surprised to learn that the choice to medicate her son or not may not be hers. Between the disapproving doctor who won’t consider non-medical interventions, and the school who doesn’t want to deal with an unmedicated Tom, social services are called in, and Elena’s custody is threatened.
Inevitably, a movie like this serves as an indictment of our over-prescribed culture, but The Other Tom is also a mother-son story at its heart. Tom is just a little boy struggling to fit in. He doesn’t want to be bad, but he’s restless and angry, lonesome for his estranged father. Elena struggles too, struggles to be a good mother, to be patient, to make good choices, to keep her temper in check, to shield her son from harmful labelling, to juggle the needs of her son with the state’s attempt to pathologize and tranquilize his disruptive behaviour. And if we’re being honest, struggles to bond with a troubled son whose constant disturbances weigh on her heavily.
Behavioural disorders are draining for the whole family. They interrupt the usual intimacy and trust that breeds a healthy relationship. Elena loves her son, but some days it’s hard to like him. In allowing him to be unmedicated, Elena is also confronting her own inadequacies and must learn to cope with Tom’s challenges and to reach out to him on his level. Love means accepting each other’s authentic selves, and no one in this film, or in life, is perfect.
Writer-directors Rodrigo Plá and Laura Santullo realize the importance of the central mother-son relationship, and they nurture it with strong, grounded performances by Chávez and Bertorelli, who remind us of the humanity pulsing around the essence of this issue. Overtaxed teachers, greedy big pharma, overzealous social services…they all fall away when we see Tom’s big eyes go round when another grown up dismisses him. There is no ‘other Tom.’ There’s just a kid who’s scared and confused and wants to fit in. It’s about time the grown-up figure out how to help him.
The Other Tom is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.