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Movie review: 'The Other Son' a switched-at-birth story with a twist

Good intentions hinder the drama as the director tries to ensure a sense of equal empathy for the Israeli and Palestinian families.

October 25, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Switched-at-birth stories are always heartbreaking, the parents who discover years later that the child they loved and raised is not their own, the child whose identity is upended. Into that already complex dynamic, filmmaker Lorraine Levy has injected the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in "The Other Son."

The screenplay, by Levy, Nathalie Saugeon and Noam Fitoussi, contemplates what if the son raised by a Jewish family was an Arab by birth? And what if a Palestinian family's adored youngest boy was Jewish? The story is ripe with potential and nicely acted by Jules Sitruk and Mehdi Dehbi. To heighten the irony, the switch was made when a Haifa clinic was evacuated during the Gulf War bombing.

But "The Other Son" is a case of good intentions overwhelming the inherent drama — quite simply, political correctness got the best of it. The French director is so focused on covering all the bases, and ensuring a sense of equal empathy — and screen time — for the plight of both families, she leaves the film struggling to get beyond a log-jam of life lessons.

Shot in Israel and shifting through four languages, the film opens 18 years after Joseph (Sitruk) and Yacine (Dehbi) were born. The switch is discovered when the results of a blood test Joseph takes during a physical for his military service don't match with either of his parents. His father Alon (Pascal Elbe) is an Israeli army commander; his mother Orith (Emmanuelle Devos) is a French-born doctor who becomes intent on figuring out the "mistake" in the test. A world away, Yacine is on his way home to visit his parents Said (Khalifa Natour) and Leila (Areen Omari) in the West Bank after graduating from school in Paris — he will head back to France to begin studying to become a surgeon.

The film starts to fall apart when the clinic director has a meeting with both sets of parents to explain what happened, how the records of the boys will be corrected and offer the empty suggestion that they find a way to get on with their lives. There should have been something more in that room than polite conversation and acceptance — but that's about all that we see.

The story gains some traction as the boys learn their true identity and begin to sort through their feelings. Joseph, a budding musician, finds his musical roots with his blood relatives on the West Bank, and discovers that the brother who looked exactly like him was killed in the region's ongoing fighting. Yacine now understands where his gift for medicine came from. The film is at its best in exploring the growing bond between Yacine and Joseph — only they understand what the other is going through.

There are the expected strains within their families and strains between the families. But everyone is trying so hard to put up a good front that the emotions rarely mesh with the moment. Like Joseph's discussion with the rabbi who has taught him since he was a child over the fact that he is technically no longer a Jew — it should have resonated more deeply than it does.

Yacine's older brother Bilal (Mahmood Shalabi) provides what little conflict there is as he shifts from loving his brother to hating him for his Jewish blood. Bilal's roiling feelings, perhaps the truest in the film, somehow seem out of place in this far-too-mellow film. Though there is a deep well of sincerity ever present, it isn't enough to make "The Other Son" the significant film it aspired to be.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

'The Other Son'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for a scene of violence, brief language and drug use; in French, Hebrew, Arabic and English, with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: At selected theaters

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