Even kindly people who can afford to hire a maid have trouble figuring out how best to treat that relationship. They may try to be cordial, but how chummy can they really get with the person they're paying to pick the pubic hair out of the shower drain? In Jorge Gaggero's debut feature, Live-In Maid, the situation is even more complex. It's 2001, Buenos Aires is undergoing a fiscal crisis, and snooty divorcée Norma Aleandro hasn't paid her long-suffering maid Norma Argentina for seven months. Argentina can't just quit in a huff, because jobs are scarce. But neither does she want to be bossed around by a woman who in some ways is now her social inferior.

Live-In Maid's premise would be ideal for a play, or a bravura performance piece like Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant. Instead, writer-director Gaggero shoots for a kind of docu-realism, with a few overtly cinematic interludes, like one well-paced split-screen sequence. Gaggero's style is serviceable, but it doesn't really give Aleandro and Argentina the time or space to establish their tangled relationship. Live-In Maid kind of rushes along, stringing together brief, blunt sequences designed to show how delusional and pathetic Aleandro is, and how sad but noble Argentina is. At one point, Aleandro tries out one of her beauty products on Argentina, then demands that Argentina let a bunch of potential clients feel her face. Later, Argentina orders around her handyman boyfriend in a familiar fashion. Scenes like these are a little obvious—all surface.

That said, some of Live-In Maid's character moments are well-observed, like when Argentina finally resigns, then takes a catering job, and immediately starts haughtily telling her younger co-workers how the rich folk like their food. Or when Aleandro trades some of her beauty products for a Chinese dinner, even though she owes her cosmetics company money. The film's best scenes show how even the most aggravating routine can become a comfort in times of trial, as when Argentina visits her ex-boss on her birthday, and takes it upon herself to clean the kitchen. It's clear she isn't doing it out of duty, or class inferiority, but because she's a caring person, and she sees that a friend needs a hand.