Rebecca Zlotowski's touching film – featuring a luminous Virginie Efira – is an intelligent exploration of being child-free at middle age
The stepmother has been repeatedly dealt the short straw, often characterised as the cruel, wicked woman on the sidelines whose ugly nature tends to poison everyone's hopes and dreams. In a confrontation of such archetypes, writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski’s contemplative fifth feature, Other People’s Children, wipes the slate clean and gives women like fortysomething high school teacher Rachel (a luminous, charming Virginie Efira) the second chance they deserve.
Said to have been inspired by her relationship with director Jacques Audiard, Zlotowski’s demure French drama (red wine and rouge lipstick are always nearby) is a mature reflection on love as childless Rachel falls into the arms of recently divorced Ali (Roschdy Zem). Moored in Paris, this amorous tale plays out with the Eiffel tower twinkling in the background, though any sense of rose-tinted romanticism is soon tossed into the Seine. Grounded in reality, Other People’s Children is not simply a story about this couple, but another person entirely: Ali’s adorable five-year-old daughter, Leila (pleasant child actor Callie Ferreira-Goncalves).
Rachel warms to her instantly, taking the title of “Leila’s stepmum” just as seriously, if not more, as she does “Ali’s girlfriend.” Zlotowski’s camera pushes close as this trio bond, observing their cosy evenings and weekend escapades as a family unit is established. Any worries about her parental instincts are dashed with blind panic when Leila briefly disappears within a crowd. Her mothering also materialises with troubled 16-year-old student Dylan (Victor Lefebvre), who she addresses more like a parent than a teacher, scolding him for not wearing a coat but defending his falling grades. Voicing fear of missing out on the “collective experience” of motherhood without misogynistic sentiment, Other People’s Children never bends into viewing a childless woman as incomplete on account of her not having her own children.
Taking moments for pause – her doctor (a Frederick Wiseman cameo) warns “the clock’s ticking” and Rachel admits she feels she’ll “always be an extra” in her own life – Zlotowski’s dutiful portrait frames motherhood not simply as an act of child-raising, but as part of a communal responsibility for betterment. When another mother slides Rachel a juice carton before Leila is able to see her empty hand, it’s not viewed as a failing, but a system of support. Efira’s enigmatic performance, her face centrally framed in practically every shot, is also the grounding for such contemplation. Her evocative execution hurdles over the gendered expectations laid onto Rachel against a jubilant score and swelling orchestra – arriving with a tinge of melancholia reminiscent of The Worst Person in the World’s own navigation of a woman’s concern for her future pathways.
Efira allows Rachel's emotional reckoning to shine in a scene that could so easily be overlooked. “She looks just like you,” a passerby remarks, glancing between Rachel and Leila. Leila is unaffected, but Rachel’s smile drops for a moment, her concerned gaze locking onto the child before her grin regrows. It’s one of the multiple instances in which Zlotowski and her actors create quiet internal conflict while never raising the stakes for drama’s sake. Instead, there’s a gentle sense of peeling back the layers of life to reveal something altogether more timeless and touching.
Other People’s Children was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch