Is there a word specifically for stumbling across a movie that delights you in wholly unexpected ways? If not, we should coin one. Then, I would immediately apply it to Las Mejores Familias (The Best Families)—a black comedy about the upheaval that ensues when two intertwined upper-class Peruvian families unearth decades old secrets at a luncheon on the same day that two opposing protests converge on their residential neighborhood to bombastic results—which is now among my favorite movies I’ve watched this year.
The morning before the lunch, sisters Luzmila (Tatiana Astengo) and Peta (Gabriela Velásquez) make the long journey on multiple mini-buses from their modest homes into Lima, where they work as housekeepers for Alicia (Grapa Paola) and Carmen (Gracia Olayo), two wealthy older women who live on lush and sprawling adjoining properties. When Carmen doesn’t answer Peta’s insistent ringing of the doorbell, Luzmila lets her onto the grounds through a shared shed that straddles the property line (a line of yellow tape on the floor divides the building squarely in half), which houses a jumble of belongings and plays a pivotal role in the past and present lives of the families.
When we next see them, Luzmila and Peta are shown in a split screen as they simultaneously serve Alicia and Carmen their breakfasts in bed. The two women are on the phone with each other (corded bedside landlines, of course), earnestly discussing the impending visit of Alicia’s son Andrés (César Ritter), a writer who has lived for several years in Madrid, and his girlfriend Merche (Jely Reategui), who will be meeting everyone for the first time. His return is a particularly big deal because Andrés used to be involved with Carmen’s son Mariano (Marco Zunino), which neither mother liked, but now Mariano is dating Jano (Roberto Cano) and Andrés is with a woman, which means Alicia can feel superior, which she would never say, but she is absolutely saying.
If the plot seems confusing so far, please rest assured that it is but a small taste of how deliciously messy and tangled things will get when both families come together over lunch.
As Alicia and Carmen move through their mornings, they stay on the phone with each other, gossiping and gently sniping. In one scene, Alicia goes from gently chastising Luzmila about needing to take better care of her health—insisting that she take money to buy herself medicine—to angrily reprimanding her for the coffee being cold, which Carmen, of course, eagerly relays to Peta. “It’s as if I’m talking to the walls,” Alicia tells Carmen. “It must run in the family,” Carmen responds pointedly. Luzmila and Peta both visibly acknowledge the slights, but say nothing. The performances are all understated, but it pitch-perfectly captures the often paternalistic attitude of the upper class toward their domestic employees. In another part, Alicia and Carmen commiserate about how difficult it is to motivate Luzmila and Peta, about how they lack ambition, about what a difficult childhood they must have had, about how much harm alcohol has done to the country. This conversation is had as we watch Alicia through a plate glass window as she carefully arranges and rearranges cut hydrangeas in a vase. Reflected in the glass is Luzmila, busily unwinding the hose and watering the plants in the yard. Carmen, meanwhile, is sitting on her balcony, sipping a morning Bloody Mary while wearing a face mask and reading the obituaries. The irony is sharp, cutting, poignant, and funny, but also doesn’t denigrate Alicia and Carmen, who are products of their sheltered upbringings. In between, the women gently dig at each other—questioning decisions, wondering aloud about what grown children are doing—in a way that only people who have known each other for decades can do. When the two women finally hang up, they each sigh with exasperation, rolling their eyes that the other talks incessantly.
The next morning, after catching her mother smoking weed in the shed, Carmen insists that they arrive at Alicia’s house via the front door because they are “decent people.” This requires a near epic ordeal of opening and closing large wooden doors and gates and driving two cars around the block instead of simply walking across the yards and through the shared shed. All of this plays out in a coordinated pageantry—upbeat music playing, car doors shutting in unison, drone shots of the cars rounding the block. There is so much humor and depth in this simple scene of watching people go through so much pomp and circumstance to make their way to a place where they could have walked in a fraction of the time if appearance and social standing didn’t matter.
Because of the protests, Andrés and Merche are delayed coming from the airport, which leaves the two families ample time to spar and compete in their absence. No one seems to know what the protests are about and (the movie never says either), but some of them are sure that people should be “working instead of being lazy and demanding so many rights.” Others contend that the only way that “those people” will learn is if they’re hit and gassed, which is a terrible idea, but some lovely foreshadowing for my favorite scene.
Andrés and Merche finally arrive and this movie goes from controlled farce to utter chaos, which I mean in the very best way. Is it a coincidence that at first everyone in both families mistakenly calls her “Meche,” which is but one letter off from the word mecha (meaning wick)? Doubtful, since it is her presence that causes everyone, in one way or another, to explode—shattering long-held beliefs, secrets, relationships, and silences. But here is where I must keep schtum because saying more would reveal all kinds of things that would absolutely ruin the keeps-you-guessing taut, frenetic energy of the movie.
I think what makes this movie work so well is, first of all, its frankness. The connections and backstories may rival a telenovela (not really), but the way people speak and interact is forthright and direct, which makes the whole thing feel grounded in a way that it needs to be to carry off the more madcap elements. With the exception of perhaps one character, I came away feeling like I had a deeper understanding of people’s motivations and reasons for their actions, even if I didn’t agree or like them. Perhaps most importantly, even as it prods, skewers, and gently roasts its characters (and society at large), the movie never strips them of their dignity. Which is pretty impressive when you consider that there is a scene where they’re all running pell mell (one while clutching a hank of fake hair recently ripped out in a tussle) to escape the falling tear gas canisters that are arcing into their house and yard from the protests. The scene, which is my favorite, happens in slow motion without any voices, backed by balletic classical music. Smoke billows from the fallen canisters, people’s faces contort in shock and horror as they realize more gas is blocking their way, frantic plans are made to find an escape route before they’re trapped, but they come through this—and the entire day—together, their humanity intact, changed and yet unchanged.
A note about the subtitles on HBO MAX: They’re not the best. In English they sometimes get words and pronouns wrong. In Spanish they sometimes get words wrong. It’s not so bad that you won’t know what’s going on, but I thought it best to warn you.