Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Music Box Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, April 21.
A coming-of-age character study about a woman already of a certain age, Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Other People’s Children” feels, to put it bluntly, delightfully French. And that goes beyond the outer trappings, the Paris setting, the opening shot of the Eiffel Tower glittering in the night sky, or the countless dimly lit, book-lined apartments where the film’s characters enjoy wine and cigarettes, toasting to the pleasures of sophisticated adulthood.
Let those elements aside and consider this story of sentimental education in function and form: For one thing, this mainstream, mature drama, led by two sexy-if-not-sculpted stars comfortably north of 40, certainly feels a product of the Gallic industry. For another, consider this particular drama’s focus on complex emotional scales — finding story beats given Hollywood polish in “Jerry Maguire” and “Stepmom” and exploring them with a focus on the characters’ inner lives — flowing naturally from the French literary tradition. “Other People’s Children” leaves no doubt about its parentage.
Holding the screen for all 104 minutes, and using each one to display her apparently limitless range, Virginie Efira stars as Rachel, a 40-something high school teacher with a bit of a crush. She’s professionally accomplished and good at her job, only she’s a woman distracted, moving through class and faculty meetings and social obligations with a glint in her eye and a man on her mind. Swapping the physical bombast of “Benedetta” for a more interior poise, Efira imparts her character’s early anticipation — and eventual yearning, bliss, and hurt — using nothing but a glance. Rachel is a woman of the world with a universe inside.
Recent divorcé Ali (Roschdy Zem, of “Oh Mercy!”) is the man on her mind, and soon enough, the man in her bed. His bed, too — and as this new love takes flight, the pair will have each other’s bodies and apartments to explore. Zlotowski thrills in little details, from the pictures on Ali’s walls revealing just how recently his marriage imploded, to the parting glance Rachel allows herself while Ali showers one morning. In one of the few times the camera keeps the actress off-screen it does so to assume her point-of-view, gazing at her new paramour sudsy and in the buff — a bit of equal opportunity objectification that seals this intimate bond.
Of course, theirs is something of a shared love, because with Ali comes his four-year-old daughter, Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves, playing cute and a bit annoying at times, making for a very credible Kid Onscreen). To the film’s immense credit, it does little to make the trio unique. As Rachel and Ali try to introduce their new relationship to the young girl who will always claim the lion’s share of Ali’s heart, they act with eagerness and reticence, seemingly as much out of self-protection as anything else. Because kids can be wonders and kids can be cruel, casually and without meaning to, but cutting all the same.
Ali is committed to his daughter, Rachel’s committed to this new unit she’s become a part of, and Zlotowski is committed to a truth common to so many composed families. Without ever raising the stakes higher than necessary, the filmmaker finds glory and bloodshed in the simple ways that barriers fall, that people connect, and that a single, stray remark — offered as a compliment no less — can cut straight to the core. All fit with the film’s larger mission, to bring us into Rachel’s thoughts and into her life, and to experience both in the moment to moment.
What may shape those thoughts? Well, there’s that ticking biological clock (the news delivered by a gynecologist played by Frederick Wiseman in a French-speaking cameo), her own apprehensions about maternity fueled by a family tragedy, and no doubt a desire to build a lasting future with Ali and Leila — to not, as she says at one point — feel like an extra in her own life. Rachel has an open and hungry heart, and as her love for Ali extends towards (and is reciprocated by) Leila as well, she does recognize the dangers in extending that maternal instinct to, well, see the film’s title.
Mind you, that title does double duty when you factor in the character’s line of work. If you couldn’t quite call it a side plot — does life have side plots? — a parallel and complementary narrative strand follows the high school teacher as she helps an at-risk student, Dylan (Victor Lefebvre). That Rachel helps the teen find professional apprenticeships (and in doing so, enter the adult world) is something of a cute play-on-words, as the French term for Coming-of-Age film is literally film d’apprentissage. Only this is very a coming-of-age text, following both student and teacher as they grow, awkwardly at times, into new forms of adulthood.
“Other People’s Children” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.