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Other Son (Le Fils de l'Autre), The
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by Jay Seaver

"An odd sort of brotherhood."
4 stars

My half-a-lifetime-ago high school French tells me that the title of this movie doesn't quite translate to "The Other Son", but to "The Son of the Other", and that does turn out to be a fairly important distinction. As a simple switched-at-birth story, "The Other Son" is all right, but it's the matters of cultural identity that make for interesting questions.

Tel Aviv resident Joseph Silberg (Jules Sitruk) is about to turn eighteen and start his military service, but the physical turns up something odd - his blood type is A-negative while both mother Orith (Emmanuelle Devos) and father Alon (Pascal Elbé) are A-positive, a genetic impossibility. It turns out that on the night Jo was born, the hospital in Haifa was locked down against a potential Scud attack, and in the confusion the Silbergs' baby was switched with that of Leila and Said Al-Bezaaz (Areen Omari and Khalifa Natour), a Palestinian couple now living in the West Bank. Though the families initially intend to keep this secret from Jo and Yacine (Mehdi Dehbi), Joseph's sudden ineligibility for military service demands an explanation.

This sort of mix-up affects a lot of people, and the somewhat circuitous path co-writer and director Lorraine Levy takes to show this is perhaps kind of unusual: The film starts out focused on Jo, then spends a fair amount of time with his parents before introducing the Al-Bezaazes and then takes a little bit longer before finally bringing Yacine home from school in Paris. Doing it this way does tend to establish the Silbergs' perspective (and by extension, that of Israel) as the default, but does also let the audience get to know the entire cast in small enough groups that the other side doesn't feel sold short. And while the shifts in perspective during the first act are noticeable, it doesn't drag out to the point where Yacine seems to be held back.

He does satisfy a certain amount of curiosity when he does show up, though, handsome and confident and a complement to Jo in unexpected ways. Where the switch superficially explains some things about Jo - he doesn't really look like either of his parents, and is more interested in being a musician than following in the footsteps of either his psychiatrist mother or soldier father - it pointedly doesn't for Yacine; he almost seems like he'd be cool anywhere, just as Jo is going to be the odd guy in a group no matter what. Neither Sitruk nor Dehbi overplays this; instead, they both give us mature, personable teenagers who would be worth following even if they weren't connected. It's still kind of neat that this is the relationship that grows the closest, despite the lack of any blood ties.

The actors playing the Silberg parents get top billing, and they're both quite impressive. From the very start, Elbé's Alon has the bearing of a soldier even when he's not in uniform, and while he's never stiff, the way he lets his humanity out but never allows it to be confused with weakness seems right on. Devos is at her best when the discovery of the switch is initially playing out, being calm and reasonable but also kind of afraid. Areen Omari is similarly solid making Leila less sophisticated but no less kind, and Khalifa Natour does very nice in playing up how Said is blue collar and chafing under the restrictions that he and most Palestinians live under without ever coming off as too unpleasant. Mahmood Shalabi is often very off-putting as Yacnie's older brother Bilal, with the intensity of his emotion occasionally overpowering its nature.

It does occasionally seem a bit simplistic that the mothers are quickly reasonable and ready to open their hearts while the fathers have issues - there may be something to it, but it feels a bit like easy symbolism when Jo and Yacine seem relatively individual. In fact, once the characters have all been introduced and clued in, the story becomes thin enough to practically require something random for a climax. It's a film that doesn't need a whole lot of plot, though - it's got enough interesting and well-performed characters and situation that it can thrive without a whole lot of excess drama, and offers the sort of clear-eyed view of its contentious setting that can be friendly to individuals but offer a sharper rebuke than one might initially suspect upon closer examination.

"The Other Son" treads some fairly well-worn territory, but does so in an enjoyable, capable, and for the most part surprisingly optimistic manner. Given the potential for melodrama, the tendency of director Lorraine Levy, her co-writers, and her cast to tend toward hope can be quite welcome.

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originally posted: 10/25/12 11:21:00
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  26-Oct-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 19-Mar-2013



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