‘Other People’s Children’ Review: Virginie Efira Shines in a Wise, Humane Story of Second-Degree Parenting

Bittersweet and beautifully observed, this study of a child-free woman's growing attachment to her boyfriend's daughter is the best film to date from writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski.

Other People's Children
Courtesy of Les Films Velvet/George Lechaptois

While waiting to pick up five-year-old Leila from judo practice, personable 40-ish schoolteacher Rachel introduces herself to another parent as Leila’s stepmom, before backtracking to awkwardly correct herself. Later, when a kindly stranger on a train remarks on the resemblance between the two, Rachel doesn’t bother clarifying, merely accepting the benign compliment. Her relationship to Leila is both unremarkably simple and complicated by an absence of clear language for it: She’s dating the girl’s father, and the attachment between woman and child has grown perhaps stronger than the relationship on which it depends. It’s the kind of delicate everyday situation that rarely occupies the centre of a film, and in the superb “Other People’s Children,” writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski negotiates it with warm intelligence and compassion.

Continuing in the relaxed, character-centered vein of 2019’s lovely “An Easy Girl” — the right direction to take after the starry disappointment of 2016’s ambitious fantasy “Planetarium” — this is the most assured, mature work of Zlotowski’s career: It feels right that “Other People’s Children” marks her ascent to the A-league of the festival circuit, bowing as it does in competition at Venice. With the ubiquitous, reliably sympathetic Virginie Efira headlining proceedings, healthy business in France is a given, but with further festival exposure and discerning distribution, this universally recognisable story could well resonate with international arthouse audiences.

“Life is both short and long,” sighs Rachel (Efira) to her gynaecologist Dr. Wiseman (a gentle, wily cameo from, well, Frederick Wiseman), as he tactfully cautions her that she may not have much time left to have a baby, should she wish to do so. To Rachel, being child-free doesn’t represent a void in her life, which — between a job she loves, outside hobbies and a close network of family and friends — she finds plenty fulfilling, her happiness paid forward with the time and care she invests in her students’ well-being. But neither is childlessness her clear preference: Things have simply worked out that way so far, and as she heads into her forties, she finds herself ruminating on the possibilities of it working out a little differently.

When she starts going out with mild-mannered industrial designer Ali (Roschdy Zem), she gets at least an inkling of what might have been. Divorced with shared custody of the adorable Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves), he’s at first wary of introducing the pre-schooler to his new partner; once he does, however, the two swiftly form an affectionate rapport, to the extent that he’s happy entrusting Rachel with some of his own childcare responsibilities. Leila’s mother Alice (Chiara Mastroianni) doesn’t resent the other woman’s presence in her daughter’s life, though Leila occasionally gets confused in parsing the women’s separate roles: “Mommy is your girlfriend,” she insists to her father at an agitated moment, as she complains about Rachel’s regular presence in dad’s apartment. “I want her to go away.”

Zlotowski’s deft, perceptive original screenplay is keenly attuned to the cutting emotional impact of a passing remark or overheard jab, and the unintended microaggressions that parents occasionally toss at their child-free peers: There are almost no directly confrontational scenes in “Other People’s Children,” yet the film is shot through with the conflict of adults failing to really hear or see each other. Ali isn’t an unkind man, but there’s something telling in the ease with which he lets Rachel assume a maternal role that he then treats as a convenience, only to accuse her of selfishness when she occasionally expresses her own feelings and desires. 

As the romance begins to pall, Leila increasingly becomes the tie that binds them, but if “staying together for the kids” is a bad idea for two parents at odds with each other, it’s worse still for a couple that doesn’t even share the child in question. Zlotowski examines the uncertain social etiquette and complex obligations of this scenario with a forensic precision that never feels heartless or theoretical. 

It helps that Rachel’s secondary relationships — with a flirtatious younger colleague all too eager to be there for her, a recalcitrant student in need of some surrogate mothering, a younger sister who, as fate would have it, falls accidentally pregnant just at the moment Rachel tries to conceive — are all drawn with equal detail and nuance: The film feels fully inhabited, not built around one topical case study. Every time the script threatens a pat or sentimental resolution, the plainer outcomes of real life kick in. Efira, always so good at bringing particularity and pathos to everywoman characters, resists over-expressing her character’s reserves of hurt and anxiety in scene after scene, saving whole paragraphs of dialogue with one wounded-but-half-recovered glance or a brief, backed-up second of sobbing.

This restraint is matched by the casual elegance of Zlotowski’s filmmaking. George Lechaptois’s lensing never opts for flash or dazzle when a seam of natural sunlight will illuminate exact what’s required; Bénédicte Mouret’s well-considered costume design cycles through moods and seasons while always feeling plausibly pulled from the laundry basket; Rob’s eclectic score veers from Allen-esque piano jazz to more orchestral mourning, yet always sounds more or less like the playlist you’d expect Rachel to have in her head. 

Zlotowski closes on George Moustaki’s mellifluous cover of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March” — a different recording of the same sweetly melancholic song that so effectively closed out last year’s “The Worst Person in the World.” There, its whimsical list-like lyric was the soundtrack to a young woman still shuffling through the options facing her in life. In “Other People’s Children,” it suits an older woman editing that list a little, looking back on past pathways now closed and ahead to that aforementioned long-short life, still confident in her choices.

‘Other People’s Children’ Review: Virginie Efira Shines in a Wise, Humane Story of Second-Degree Parenting

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Competition), Sept. 4, 2022. Running time: 103 MIN. (Original title: "Les enfants des autres")

  • Production: (France) A Les Films Velvet production in co-production with France 3 Cinéma in association with Indefilms 10, Indeflims Initiative 8, Cinecap 5, Cinecap 3 Developpement, Cineventure 6. (World sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Producer: Frédéric Jouve.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Rebecca Zlotowski. Camera: George Lechaptois. Editor: Géraldine Mangenot. Music: Rob.
  • With: Virginie Efira, Roschdy Zem, Callie Ferreira-Goncalves, Chiara Mastroianni, Yamée Couture, Henri-Noël Tabary, Victor Lefebvre, Sébastien Pouderoux, Michel Zlotowski, Mireille Perrier, Frederick Wiseman, Anne Berest.