Petite Maman, 2021.
Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma.
Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne, and Margot Abascal.
Nelly has just lost her grandmother and is helping her parents clean out her mother’s childhood home. She explores the house and the surrounding woods. One day she meets a girl her same age building a treehouse.
One doesn’t need to think too hard to figure out what writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman is actually about (especially after reading the brief synopsis), as even knowing what’s coming is impossible to take away from the magical realism beauty of the dynamic. Such a revelation used in a film this pure of heart and intention is enough to make one wonder what else could brilliantly be done with the countless tropes of its kind out there.
Hot off of the astonishing Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman couldn’t be a more different project in tone, functioning as one of the most charmingly wholesome movies of the year but not with a great deal of layered substance worth unpacking. At 72 minutes as brisk and breezy as the autumn setting, it’s even more tantalizing to dig into on repeat watches.
Newcomer Joséphine Sanz is Nelly, an inquisitive and emotionally sharp eight-year-old girl not only grieving the recent loss of her grandmother but disappointed in the final goodbye given. And while such tragedy has seemingly brought Nelly’s family (parents played by (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne), it’s not long before mom disappears while they are clearing out the empty home. Confused and unsure of the situation, Nelly decides to distract herself by venturing out into the woods, searching for her mother’s childhood hut surrounded by trees. Upon stumbling across the location, she finds another eight-year-old girl named Marion with identical facial features to be twins.
That’s also because they are real-life twins, with Marion played by Gabrielle Sanz, adding an organic feel to the bonding but another layer of depth to the story being told. They quickly and easily become friends, whether playing outdoors or at Marion’s home, where her mother kindly offers dinner. Keeping in line with a penchant for curiosity, both girls also have serious but supportive conversations about what they are going through, especially when Marion mentions that she will be going in for surgery in a few days. Adorably, the girls also like to role-play as detectives, among other scenarios that continue to fall in line with adulthood fascination (even specific movements and actions gradually began to take on the pros of an adult).
Back at home, Nelly tries to communicate with her father about why mom is gone, growing closer to him in the process, eventually sharing one of the sweetest scenes all year. Meanwhile, his advice to his daughter is to only stay over at Marion’s house unless invited. Whether or not such an event happens, it’s clear that time is also limited between these two, albeit not for grim reasons. Petite Maman is a lovely children’s fable about generational connection oozing with imagination, grounded by a pair of child performances that are just the right amount of heavy with plenty of heartwarming and humorous kid shenanigans to go around (namely a pancake flipping scene, in addition to many others).
Céline Sciamma, working with her regular collaborator Claire Mathon, captures beautiful scenery ripe for playful adventures (a sailing scene, in particular, stands out as breathtaking) that develop into something tangible and emotional. Petite Maman is a cutesy and relaxed take on stepping into someone else’s shoes and understanding their perspective while attempting to grasp a more crystallized meaning of who they are and were. It may be small in a physical sense of scope (the film was clearly made during the ongoing global health crisis and is assuredly one of the most distinctly inventive films to come out of it), but artistically it’s an ambitiously enchanting, heart-meltingly sincere, and thoughtful work.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com