Rachel (Virginie Efira), a high-school teacher in her early forties, meets Ali (Roschdy Zem) at a group guitar lesson, and the two fall swiftly and deeply in love.
Falling in love with Ali also means falling in love with his adorable four year-old daughter, Leïla (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves), and Rachel embraces her new stepmother role with joy, taking her to Judo classes, providing snacks, and offering her comfort when she’s feeling blue.
But Leïla is not her child, and reminders of this abound. Ali is more than happy to allow her to babysit, yet when it comes to important decisions and birthday celebrations, with Leïla’s biological mother Alice (Chiara Mastroianni) still very much in the picture, Rachel doesn’t get a look in. Underlining everything is the painful awareness that if she and Ali split up, she’ll lose his daughter too.
Rebecca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children embraces its delicate emotional terrain, running time and again into ground where the slightest hint of thoughtlessness could have felled the whole production, and traversing it with tremendous grace.
And it sidesteps dull narrative tropes with similar dexterity. Much to its credit, the film refuses to villainise anyone – it would have been so easy to turn Alice into nothing but a jealous love rival, but she’s portrayed as just a normal woman who’s got her own stuff going on. It looks as though Vincent (Henri-Noël Tabary), a younger colleague of Rachel’s with an obvious crush on her, will be the arms she runs to at the first sign of trouble with Ali – yet that relationship plays out differently too. At every juncture, Other People’s Children reaches for empathy over cliché, and the resultant warmth makes the movie sing.
Also vital to the film’s bone-deep sensitivity is that Rachel’s desire for a child is not used to make a statement for all womankind. Zlotowski’s feature doesn’t come out on one ‘side’ or the other of the ‘childfree debate’; it’s not at all polemical. Whilst the beautiful epilogue does extol a vital universal message – you don’t have to have birthed someone to nurture them in a way that has an important impact on their life – this remains a specific story about a specific woman.
In service of enhancing the film’s general luminosity, it helps that that specific woman is played by the radiant Virginie Efira. Although Other People’s Children spans the whole spectrum of emotions, and she is in every scene experiencing them all, her performance is never overblown or melodramatic – she can break your heart just as readily with a single glance as many lesser actors could with a long teary monologue. Still, her abundant joie de vivre is what gives the feature much of its lustrous, loving energy. In a film overflowing with pleasures – we haven’t even gotten to legendary American documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s bizarre but delightful cameo as Rachel’s gynaecologist (!!!) – Efira’s sparkling lead performance is unquestionably the highlight.