Other People’s Children Review: It’s the Joy in Your Heart

Virginie Efira delivers a warm, radiant performance

“That’s not how it ends,” a student protests to Rachel (Virginia Efira) at the beginning of Other People’s Children. Rachel, a high school teacher, matter-of-factly addresses the issue. “It’s an adaptation,” she replies.

With this brief, non-judgemental answer, Rachel advises her students that life doesn’t always follow the story one expects. Writing one’s own ending happens all the time. Life rarely goes by the book.

Written and directed by Rebecca Zlotowksi (Grand Central, Planetarium), Other People’s Children turns the page on stories of happily ever after. A hidden gem from last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the film offers a refreshing portrait of love, family, and independence in the 21st century. The film gives Rachel a role rarely afforded to portrayals of motherhood. Rachel dances between playing the surrogate and being the stepmom. Neither a wicked stepmother nor a younger trophy, Rachel just wants a family to bring her life full circle.

Her boyfriend, Ali (Roschdy Zem), is newly separated. He has a four-year-old daughter, Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves), and he advises Rachel they’ll meet when the time is right. Rachel, meanwhile, yearns for a child of her own. But her doctor, played in a great cameo by nonagenarian documentary filmmaker Fred Wiseman, cautions her to move quickly. “Think of months as years,” he tells her, radiating Wiseman’s aged wisdom. Rachel opens herself to the possibility that she can raise children—just probably not her own.


Seasons of Change

Zlotowksi takes Dr. Wiseman’s advice to heart as Other People’s Children marks clearly the passage of time. Irises ins and outs separate the film into loose acts, each of which evokes a passing season. Moreover, someone close to Rachel learns of an unwanted pregnancy when Rachel loosens her practice of safe sex with Ali. As her companion’s belly grows, Rachel’s encouraging, bittersweet smile masks a pang of sadness.

At the same time, Rachel strengthens her bond with Leila. She learns what it means to parent—adapting her schedule, exercising patience, and anticipating Leila’s needs. Soon enough, Rachel picks up Leila at judo classes and introduces herself as her “stepmom.” It’s clear that she isn’t sure what to call herself, but the mom she befriends understands perfectly. She smiles and slips Rachel a juice box to offer Leila after class.

Other People’s Children smartly tackles the shifting nature of parenthood through details and gestures like these. Zlotowksi deftly explores the emotional complexity of developing a relationship with a child to whom one has no parental rights. While tender scenes show a decent bond and a healthy sex life between Rachel and Ali, Leila seems to be their lone shared interest. It complicates things, too, that Ali’s ex, Alice (Chiara Mastorianni), is perfectly friendly. She’s not a foe, yet she’s still a foil to Rachel’s relationship with Leila. When the child becomes tired or restless, she makes clear that she wants her mother—and that Rachel isn’t Alice. Rachel understands Leila’s confusion, but recognizes the same predicament in herself. No matter how much she devotes herself to Leila, she’ll always be the other woman. The number two.


Evoking Annie Hall

While Rachel grapples with the implication of forging tenuous bonds, she demonstrates daily her strength with other people’s children. She exercises the same patience with her students as she does with Leila. Other teachers give up on their students while Rachel devotes her attention, best she can, to students being failed by the system. Zlotowksi and Efira don’t blur the lines between Rachel’s personal and professional roles, though. There’s a clear distinction between Rachel’s maternal cravings and her career as a teacher. But the interplay between Rachel’s responsibilities builds a satisfying character arc as she finds herself caught between her pride as contemporary career woman and her recognition that traditional roles still define her idea of success.


Efira gives a radiant performance as Rachel. She brings an effortless comedic side—something one hasn’t quite seen in films like Benedetta and Paris Memories—that recalls the natural charm of Diane Keaton. The warmth of Efira’s performance lets Rachel conceal the aching vulnerability that only the audience can see. Efira forces Rachel to confront the sense of inadequacy she feels while navigating her maternal sense. Oscillating between insecurity and authority thanks to Efira’s downplayed physical performance, Rachel tackles the lack she feels when life tells her that she must regenerate a piece of her body to be a contributing member of society. Instead, Rachel’s warmth and imperfections make the character relatable and refreshingly real as she learns her worth.


The Best Person in the World?

This empathetic, naturally Keaton-esque performance complements the down-to-earth comedic touch of Zlotowksi’s direction. At the risk of alienating readers, Other People’s Children evokes the best of Woody Allen with its highly-metropolitan consideration of what it means to find satisfaction in life. Zlotowksi obviously understands women far better than Allen does, yet viewers could find Rachel as enduringly endearing as Annie Hall. Moreover, the literate, culturally-attune film might feed a gap for audiences searching for a fresh voice since the Woodman’s decline—without the baggage to boot.

The soundtrack particularly evokes Allen with its throwbacks and American tunes, but if there’s a mate to be found for Other People’s Children, it might be Joachim Trier’s Oscar-nominated The Worst Person in the World. While the Norwegian dramedy explores Millennial love, Zlotowksi’s film offers a similarly tragicomic exploration of finding one’s path in a life ruled by outdated idea of success. It delivers a revitalizing, decidedly contemporary sensibility and sense of humour. Ironically, both The Worst Person in the World and Other People’s Children close with the same end credits song, “The Waters of March,” which helps put them on the same brainwave as ditties about finding oneself. But for anyone seeking reassurance that other peoples’ happiness doesn’t have to define their own, this film offers a warm reminder that sometimes the most satisfying stories write their own endings.


Other People’s Children opens in select cities on June 16.