Other People’s Children Beautifully Captures the Conflict of Having Kids

Movies Reviews Rebecca Zlotowski
Other People’s Children Beautifully Captures the Conflict of Having Kids

The concept of a “biological clock” is being grappled with across disciplines, including reproductive science, workplace environments and, of course, the arts. Earlier this month, writer-director Alexis Jacknow’s Hulu original horror film Clock combatted the dangers of the social pressure for women to reproduce during a designated fertility window. Now, French director Rebecca Zlotowski tackles the subject with grace and levity, undoubtedly impacted by her own experience as a child-free woman in her 40s. Her film Other People’s Children doesn’t merely focus on a woman weighing her options when it comes to the prospect of motherhood; it also exemplifies the myriad ways that we can foster genuine, compassionate bonds with kids—particularly those acting outside the “parent” label.

Fortysomething Rachel (a dazzling Virginie Efira) is a high school teacher in Paris who, by all accounts, is living her best life. She maintains a friendly-enough relationship with her ex-husband (Henri-Noël Tabary), is devoted to her dad (Michel Zlotowski, the filmmaker’s father who’s appeared in a few of her earlier films) and sister Louana (Yamée Couture) and has recently begun to learn to play guitar. It’s during one of her weekly lessons that she finally goes out for a drink with Ali (Roschdy Zem), a fellow student whose presence has encouraged Rebecca’s own perfect attendance. He makes her laugh, they hit it off and eventually become lovers. As their relationship escalates, Ali tells Rachel about his 4-year-old daughter, Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves), who he maintains full custody of. When a suitable amount of time passes, Ali decides that it would be appropriate for Rachel and Leila to meet. Rachel immediately falls in love with the big-cheeked, precocious child, savoring her weekly responsibility of picking Leila up from judo class. She soon learns, however, that no amount of love she gives the child can eclipse what she receives from her own mother, Alice (Chiara Mastroianni), even if Rachel appears to be more invested in the child’s well-being on a day to day basis.

Interestingly, Zlotowski herself became unexpectedly pregnant during the making of this film, a fact that makes the central struggle of Other People’s Children all the more fascinating and poignant. So much of Rachel’s story revolves around her experience as an unmarried, child-free woman in her 40s, yet the film never even hints that these facets of her identity are the root of her mounting personal ennui. Indeed, the culprits are the social burden of womanhood and outdated notions of “family” that restrict her potential for a happy, fulfilling life. Her heart nearly breaks when Leila throws a tantrum about Rachel being over “all the time,” as opposed to her birth mother, and Ali’s own notion of what comprises a traditional household threatens to sabotage his relationship with Rachel.

In fact, Louana’s sudden “happy accident” of a pregnancy appears to mirror the experience of Zlotowski – joy and trepidation seize hold in equal measure, but the decision to keep the baby is met with nothing but eager happiness and support from Rachel. Again, the filmmaker is careful not to tread cliched ground when it comes to navigating a woman’s relationship to motherhood and “traditional” roles. Rachel does not envy or look down on her sister for embracing a life path that has not yet manifested for her; even when the baby is born, Rachel is a dutiful aunt and caretaker, pouring an enormous amount of love into each interaction with the child. Deeply loving the children in our lives doesn’t always mean we yearn for children of our own. Being open to the idea of having children doesn’t mean we must be devastated when the opportunity doesn’t arise.

Arguably, the film’s most heartfelt storyline involves Rachel advocating for a troubled student named Dylan (Victor Lefebvre), whose tumultuous home life has begun to impact  his grades and overall disposition at school. Having previously heard the student say he enjoys the inner workings of machines, she recommends him for an internship with Ali at his car manufacturing plant. Even when it turns out that Dylan has not been fulfilling his duties with Ali, Rachel never ceases supporting him. Years later, during the film’s epilogue, Rachel finally receives the validation she never intentionally sought through her profession—that of positively affecting the life of a child for the better. Knowing that Dylan’s own family likely hasn’t stepped up for him in the past, this exchange beautifully demonstrates how even our most instinctive actions can be influenced by a biological need to nurture, one that isn’t solely reserved for the children we’re capable of producing.

It would be remiss not to note the overwhelming similarities between Other People’s Children and Clock, two films that bookended my Paste reviews for the month. Both movies feature an “aging” female protagonist whose reproductive window is narrowing; an internal struggle influenced by each woman’s Jewish faith and family; stern talks from gynecologists that recommend having children ASAP before infertility sets in (in Other People’s Children, renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman plays Rachel’s OBGYN, a delightful, if initially shocking, cameo). Yet by staying rooted in the everyday challenges that Rachel and so many other women face, Zlotowski’s film feels more prescient and insightful than Jacknow’s. Of course, the dystopian landscape of American reproductive rights lends itself to socially conscious horror filmmaking a la Clock, but it’s curious that only Zlotowski’s film engages with the fact that Jewish faith does not consider a fetus a full-fledged person, meaning that abortion does not go against doctrine. Even if Rachel and Louana lightly joke about the subject, it’s still a worthwhile exploration of the way their faith intersects with their potential family planning options.

Funny, frank and never adopting a fatalist viewpoint, Other People’s Children entrenches itself in a full spectrum of human (though largely feminine) emotions that concern prospective parenthood. Its thoroughly French sensibility (humorous nudity, gratuitous shots of the Eiffel Tower and several café/bistro scenes) is only bolstered by the Jewish identity of Rachel and her family, yet the relationship between her and proudly Arab Ali never serves as fodder for milquetoast observations of religious difference (lord knows Europeans typically can’t resist these oft-tepid surveys). Coupled with Audrey Diwan’s vital film Happening from last year, French women directors are creating a necessary canon of child-free womanhood, past and present, assured and uncertain.

Director: Rebecca Zlotowski
Writer: Rebecca Zlotowski
Stars: Virginie Efira, Roschdy Zem, Chiara Mastroianni, Callie Ferreira-Goncalves, Michel Zlotowski, Yamée Couture, Victor Lefebvre
Release Date: April 21, 2023

Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan

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