Review: Other People’s Children Succeeds as a Grownup Relationship Story

Director Rebecca Zlotowski (Planetarium, An Easy Girl) began writing the screenplay for Other People’s Children thinking of the void in the life of a 40-year-old woman who longs for children but has no prospects of having any. The character she creates to tell this story is Rachel (Virginie Efira), a successful and committed high school teacher, part of a close-knit and religious Jewish family. Rachel has friends and family, and a career she loves, but something is missing.

In her guitar class, Rachel meets Ali (Roschdy Zem), a ruggedly handsome man and an industrial designer; there’s an immediate attraction. Ali is divorced with shared custody of an adorable 5-year-old daughter named Leila (Arabic for night). We never hear any more about guitars but Rachel and Ali become close and she asks to meet his daughter. He’s at first reluctant and wants to clear it with his ex-wife, Alice (a sympathetic portrayal by Chiara Mastroianni). When they do meet, Rachel is immediately bewitched by the little girl (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves) although the child is at first resistant—or at least confused. One night at Ali’s apartment, Leila asks why Rachel is always there. She’s not always here, Ali tells her. She’s my girlfriend, he explains. No, Mommy is your girlfriend, Leila insists. 

Rachel occasionally fills in for Ali in his childcare responsibilities and spends more time with Leila; the two become attached and affectionate. But Mommy always comes first, Rachel observes time after time. She complains to Ali about her ambiguous situation, neither mom nor step-mom. But Ali, whose first thought is always for his daughter, is not supportive. 

Meanwhile, Rachel visits her gynecologist to pursue the idea of pregnancy. This is a brief but charming cameo role by the great film documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who plays Rachel’s Dr. Wiseman. His basic message: If you’re going to have a baby, you better do it soon.

Efira (Benedetta, Night Shift, Elle) is warm, beautiful and completely natural in all her scenes as Rachel. As teacher, sister, daughter, lover, friend and wannabe step-mom, she’s authentic. Her relationships feel fully drawn and natural. For example, when her sister Louana (Yamée Couture) is in the hospital with her newborn baby, their celebratory moment is sweetly tender. You can see the myriad of emotions flooding Rachel’s mind. Happiness for her sister. Regret for her own childlessness. It’s a bittersweet moment. 

The epilogue illustrates Rachel’s satisfaction with her teaching career. The scene with Dylan (Victor Lefebvre), a grateful former student, is scored with a mellifluous performance of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s ”Les Eaux de Mars” (“Waters of March”) by George Moustaki. 

During the first third of the film, I thought perhaps the conflict between Rachel and Ali might be religious (as it would be in the United States). Rachel comes from an observant Jewish family and Ali’s origin is Arabic (although there’s no mention of his religious affiliation). But the French are apparently cool about such differences; the subject never comes up in the film. Instead, the nuanced conflict is about parental relationships.

Rachel’s relationship with father and daughter Ali and Leila is one of those complex, unexplored connections that film directors don’t often portray. They’re part of real life but not often part of a screenplay. Zlotowski’s plot structure and direction negotiate this in a humane way that brings Rachel’s unhappy reality home and makes her a fully dimensional character. On the surface, Other People’s Children is a simple story, but Zlotowski imbues it with richness and character detail. 

Other People’s Children opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.