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Sundance 2023 Review: Other People’s Children – “With Virginie Efira we are watching one of the best working actors out there”

Virginie Efira and Callie Ferreira-Goncalves appear in a still from Other People’s Children by Rebecca Zlotowski, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by George Lechaptois

“How much time do I have left?” asks the woman to her elderly doctor.

“I ask myself that every morning,” he replies.

But Rachel (Virginie Efira) is not asking about her own life span, instead she’s asking about the length of time she has left to conceive a child.  It’s not an uncommon thing for a woman to start wondering as you get older.  The pressure of the ticking clock both biological and societal looms for many of us.  It’s a constraint unique to women, with men not having a time frame on their potential for fatherhood.

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But who is to say every woman wants a child?  The desire can wax and wane through a lifetime, a life that simultaneously feels short and long.  Can maternal longing be satisfied if a child is not your own?  When Rachel starts a serious relationship with Ali (Roschdy Zem), she is introduced to his young daughter Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves) and all the questions she has been asking herself about motherhood start to seem more timely and urgent.

Writer-director Rebecca Zlotowski (Planetarium) explores the challenges and complicated feelings many women face in this, her fifth feature, Other People’s Children.  The character she creates in Rachel is a great modern representation, but she ups the complexity, completely surrounding her protagonist with other people’s kids.  Rachel is a teacher at a high school.  Her younger sister becomes pregnant.  Leila comes into her life and her relationship with Ali revolves mostly around the young girl and her schedule.  Rachel has all these examples of the different stages of motherhood in her life, but is that connection enough?

Zlotowski makes very clear through her character that she does not feel a woman NEEDS a child to be fulfilled, it’s the aspect of WANT that she is most interested in, and whether that want is driven from the inside, or from society steering us that way.  Rachel has a great moment in the film where she explains how she has a fear of missing out on a “collective experience” if she doesn’t have a baby.  Is her maternal drive then truly because she wants a child of her own? Or is it something else?

When Rachel, Ali and Leila go away on a vacation together, a passenger on their train admires the family together.  “She looks just like you,” she says to Rachel, who doesn’t know what to say in the moment.  Is this version of motherhood the same when she has no biological relation to the child?  She has been welcomed into this family, but she’s not family.  She is always just ‘the spare’ and never the mother herself.  Her relationship with Leila is always dependent on her relationship with Ali.  There’s the threat of this bond to disappear in an instant.  It’s moments like this where Zlotowski’s film truly shines.

Virginie Efira takes all these cues as a way to build upon her character, as we see Rachel’s investment grow, we also see the vulnerability to which she is exposing herself.  I last saw Efira in a film called Paris Memories by director Alice Winocour during TIFF 2022.  In that film, her character is dealing with great trauma, intense and grieving.  Here, Efira gets more moments to breathe, yet she is no less brilliant.  In each performance I see, I’m made more certain that we are watching one of the best working actors out there.  If there is a Virginie Efira fan club, sign me up.  I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Other People’s Children takes a sensitive and nuanced look at a woman’s relationship with motherhood.  It’s certainly different for everyone, and the film recognizes that, just as it acknowledges the different forms that the maternal bond can take.  It asks the questions that many women find themselves asking about their complex feelings in regards to being a parent.  What results is a film that doesn’t claim to have the answers, but never feels judgemental for someone who has found them, or those still looking.

Other People’s Children premiered at the Venice Film Festival before moving to the Toronto Film Festival in September 2022.  It screened at Sundance January 20th with online screenings available for those in the U.S. starting January 24th.  For information you can go to the festival website.

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