Crafting a universally relatable story that showcases the dangers of unchecked power is extremely important in a society that’s plagued by debates over medical treatments and politics. The timely coming-of-age drama, ‘The Other Tom,’ is one such feature that powerfully portrays the dangers of medical diagnosis and prescriptions that aren’t monitored, especially amongst children. The movie, which is set in an atmosphere of subdued realism, presents a poignant take on the ways basic governmental and medical systems fail the people who depend on them the most.
Rodrigo Plá co-wrote the script for ‘The Other Tom’ with Laura Santullo, the latter of whom also penned the 2018 novel of the same name that the screenplay is based on. The scribes also served as co-directors and producers on the drama, which had its North American premiere during the Contemporary World Cinema section of last month’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
‘The Other Tom’ follows a single mother, blue-collar worker Elena (Julia Chavez), and her nine-year-old son, the eponymous Tom (Israel Rodriguez Bertorelli). Living by themselves in the U.S., they rely on each other, as well as a thin public safety net, to make ends meet. But their tight but fraught bond is pushed to the limit when Tom is hastily diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed psychiatric medication.
When Elena notices adverse reactions in her son’s mood, she stops giving him the medication. Soon Tom’s erratic behavior escalates and they’re faced with the painful possibility of him having to go into foster care. Elena’s difficulty in dealing with figures of authority — or recognizing the scarce signs of empathy they find along the way — compound Tom’s challenging attitude. But in the face of very few options, their trust in each other helps them find a way to reconnect and take on the uncertain road ahead.
Plá generously took the time during TIFF to talk about co-writing, co-directing and producing ‘The Other Tom’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he and Santullo, who’s both his filmmaking and personal partner, were interested in adapting her book for the screen because they want to raise awareness about how many children have been unnecessarily psychiatrically medicated. He also mentioned that he’s honored that the drama had its North American premiere at TIFF, as he feels it was the perfect festival to start showing the feature in North America.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the script for the new coming-of-age drama, ‘The Other Tom,’ with Laura Santullo, and based the screenplay on her 2018 novel of the same name. Why were you and Laura interested in adapting the book for the screen?
Rodrigo Plá (RP): I created and wrote my previous five films with Laura, who’s also my partner in life, and we have two kids together. Each of our films has a different history, but for this movie, we decided to write and direct it together.
Basically, our interest to create this story came from realizing how many kids have been psychiatrically medicated. We then started to do research into the subject, and what we found was both very interesting and terrible.
Since we’re also parents together, we also think about how we raise our kids. So that led us to tell this story, and create two characters to put in this context.
Julia Chavez’s character of Elena isn’t very comfortable being a mother. She loves her son, but has difficulty being a mother.
SY: Speaking of the research you did while you were developing the script, how did you prepare to pen the story?
RP: The research came from several places. My mother’s a psychoanalyst, and she specializes in treating and working with children with different conditions. So we spoke to her about her experiences. We also read several books that feature different points of views.
While we found that parents and schools are worried about kids, we also discovered that the way (doctors) make diagnosis is a little simplistic. The diagnosis is based on their observations of the kids’ behaviors, despite the context of the children’s emotions and upbringings. The (doctors) don’t care much about these other things; they just care about the children’s behavior. We think this isn’t enough to determine what’s happening with the children.
SY: In addition to scribing the screenplay, you and Laura also co-directed the movie together. How did writing the script influence your helming style, and how would you describe your overall directing approach throughout the production?
RP: This movie is one of the best experiences I’ve had. It’s my fifth film, so I was calm on the set.
This movie is an immersion into the Mexican-American community in El Paso, Texas, which is where we mainly shot it…I was able to meet this whole new community while we were there, as we worked with people who aren’t professional actors. We cast people who aren’t professionals because we wanted to keep the nuances in the way that they express themselves.
We also took our time shooting the movie, so that we weren’t rushed. We enjoyed that process very much, as it was a nice experience. Since we weren’t rushed, we were able to train our actors through workshops.
We also did improvisations with the actors. During each scene, we worked on the characters, so that we could put them in different places, and the actors could react to them. I didn’t give them the whole script so that we could work on their characters, and they could react to the situations we gave them each day.
SY: Speaking of the actors, ‘The Other Tom’ stars Julia Chávez, who you mentioned earlier, and Israel Rodríguez Bertorell as the feature’s main characters of the mother and son, Elena and Tom. What was the casting process like for the film?
RP: In a way, the casting was part of the research that we were talking about. I worked with Diana Sedano, who’s not only a very good Mexican actress, but also a writer and director, on the casting for the movie. With these types independent movies , I like to make the cast my own.
It’s mainly revealed how actors will react, especially non-professional actors, during the casting process. I don’t judge if they’re good or bad; I’m judging if they can react to my stimulus.
So I was involved in the casting process, and worked with the people from El Paso. That way, I could see if the people we were considering casting understood the nuances of the story. I also wanted to see if they had the right accents for the characters, and could mix Spanish and English in the way that’s in the script.
The process was long, but when we discovered Julia Chávez and Israel Rodríguez Bertorelli, we decided they were the right choices. We then started searching for the professors, teachers, doctors and Child Protective Service workers. The people we cast as the Child Protective Service workers in the film actually used to be Child Protective Service workers in real life. So we chose people from all areas of life, who were close to the characters.
SY: Besides penning and helming the drama, you also served as one of the feature’s producers, alongside Laura. Why did you decide to also produce ‘The Other Tom,’ and how did you balance your directorial and producing duties during the production?
RP: Being one of the producers isn’t the part of filmmaking that I like most. (Plá laughs.) I’m obligated to do it because most of the films we make are produced by the state. I have a company with Laura, and the easiest way to apply to get the state funding is for us to also be producers on our projects.
But producing my projects does give me independence as a director. Then I don’t have another producer telling me what shots to include in the film. So I like to produce some personal projects, like this one, but I also like to work with other producers on other people’s projects.
We found a few other producers to work with on this film. But Laura and I were able to maintain control of the project by also working as producers on it ourselves.
SY: ‘The Other Tom’ is having its North American Premiere in the Contemporary World Cinema section of this year’s TIFF. What has the experience of bringing the movie to the festival been like?
RP: Well, it’s amazing to be here and to have been invited, especially since it’s our first English-spoken film. TIFF is the perfect place to start showing the movie in North America.
This is the second film we have played here (at TIFF). We are very proud and happy to be back, but the experience of being here during the pandemic makes it a little stranger this time, obviously. We’re like, “Where is everybody? Oh yeah, on the computer, like we are now!” (Plá laughs.)
But it’s amazing, and I’m pleased, to be here (at TIFF). I’m very thankful that the festival chose our film and gave us this space to show the film; it’s very important to us.