The Other Son (Cohen Media Group, PG-13)

theotherson 75Lorraine Levy is far more interested in the psychology of her characters than in the political implications of their new identities.

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Americans seem to subscribe to a collective fiction that it doesn’t matter where you were born, or to whom—whatever station you occupy in your adult life is a result of your merit and your choices. That’s how Mitt Romney can claim with a straight face that he’s just a small businessman who did really well at it, without mentioning that he is also the recipient of considerable inherited privilege. Ask yourself: Do you think if Baby Mitt had been switched at birth with the child of a poor family, had attended inadequate public schools, and had to make his own way in the world without the benefits of having father who was both the president of General Motors and the governor of Michigan, he’d be where he is today?

The Other Son, directed by Lorraine Levy, takes a look at a similar kind of privilege, one based on a collective belief that your civil rights should be governed by your genetic heritage. Joseph Silberg (Jules Sitruk) grew up in Israel believing he was Jewish, until a blood test performed as part of the intake exam for military service indicated that he could not possibly be the son of the people he has always believed were his parents. At first, Joseph’s father Alon (Pascal Elbe) thinks his wife Orith (Emmanuelle Devos) must have been unfaithful to him, but the real explanation is much stranger: In the chaos of evacuating a medical clinic during the first Gulf War, Joseph was mistakenly switched with another baby. He’s the child of an Arabic couple (Areen Omari and Khalifa Natour), while Alon and Orith’s biological son Yacine (Medhi Dehbi) was raised as an Arab, literally on the other side of the wall from them.

That’s no spoiler—you find get all this information in the first 10 minutes or so, and the rest of the film is an exploration of how the different characters deal with these new circumstances. The mothers of the two boys are immediately interested in reconciliation, while the fathers are mostly angry and want to wish the whole mix-up away. The boys themselves must work through their confusion. Just imagine what it would be like to be on the brink of adulthood, only to learn that you are literally not who you think you are.

Levy is far more interested in the psychology of her characters than in the political implications of their new identities. She partly minimizes the differences between the boys by having Yacine educated in Paris, so he only experiences the indignities of the occupation when he’s home to visit. Not so his older brother Bilal (Mahmud Shalaby), who witnessed his family’s land being taken from them, and who is defined almost entirely by his anger at the Israelis. Unfortunately, Bilal’s character is a shallow stereotype, and Levy never takes the opportunity to explore why he might feel the way he does.

The Other Son is set in a realistic modern world, but it feels more like a fable (and, at its worst, like wish fulfillment) than a true exploration of what it would be like to have your world turned upside down in this way. The closest analogy I can think of would be for if you were living in, say, Georgia, in the 1930s, and suddenly your legal race was changed from white to black, or vice versa. In such circumstances, family confusion might be the least of your problems, compared to the legal, social, and economic restrictions you would suddenly face, or which would suddenly have been removed from your life. I’m curious, for instance, as to whether Yacine will be able to claim the privileges of a Jew born in Israel, and whether Joseph will get to keep his. Or will Joseph have to move to the other side of the wall and be subject to the restrictions and humiliations that Bilal and his father have been dealing with for years?

That criticism aside, Levy does convey a sense of what it’s like to grow up thinking the world is your oyster, as Joseph has. He’s free to be a slacker and concentrate his energies on having fun with his friends and playing his guitar. Yacine, by contrast, seems inordinately mature for his age, giving his mother the money he earns selling ice cream on the beach (he can earn more in a day than his father, an engineer, can earn in a month) and studying to be a physician, a classic striver’s profession if ever there was one.

The cinematography by Emmanuel Soyer is stunning, while the soundtrack is understated but always appropriate. What really make The Other Son worth seeing, however, are the actors’ performances. Even when the story seems superficial, they are able to bring a sense of depth and reality to their roles, and to find the humanity in their characters. | Sarah Boslaugh

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