Following up a film like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is no small task, but it’s one French filmmaker Céline Sciamma handles with grace in her latest release, “Petite Maman.”
Coming in at just 72 minutes, “Petite Maman” is the definition of effective storytelling. Sciamma truly flexes her ability to cut to the very core of an audience and put them through the emotional wringer – from pure childhood bliss and innocence to deep grief and trauma.
On the surface “Petite Maman” is a simple, tender story, but it manages to take grand ideas and whittle them down to the basics, allowing audiences — and eight-year-old protagonists — to easily grapple with them.
The film begins with a family in mourning. Its matriarch – a mother, mother-in-law and grandmother – has just passed away, and each generation is trying to process what it all means. For Marion (Nina Meurisse), or La mère, losing her mother (Margot Abascal) has brought an overwhelming flood of emotions, as she says goodbye to her childhood home, reunites with her potentially estranged husband, and tries to determine what comes next.
For young eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), it’s all new to her. Death is not an unknown – she realizes her grandmother is gone forever, as she wishes she’d said a better goodbye – but it is an unfamiliarity. With a heartbreaking lack of closure looming around the entire situation, Nelly and Marion both hope to find what they’re searching for while packing up her old home. What Nelly discovers provides more answers than she could have ever hoped.
When visiting her mother’s old hut in the forest, Nelly meets another eight-year-old girl working to construct the treehouse. Her name? Marion as well. As young Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) leads Nelly through the forest to her home for an afternoon of play, Nelly stumbles into the past. She realizes that this child is a younger version of her very own mother, growing up in an identical house to the one Nelly was just cleaning.
All in one, Sciamma has rolled a sci-fi storyline into a family drama detailing life and loss – and she’s done so in just an hour and change! The storytelling here is so effective that that’s all she needs to tell something so powerful. Minutes after first meeting young Nelly, so much about her life, her mindset and her family is made clear. This doesn’t come from an exposition dump or excessive dialogue, it’s actually a fairly quiet film. Instead, these details are simply shown, whether it’s through the nuances of character interactions or the framing and lingering of certain shots. It’s truly a pleasure to watch her craft this story.
Part of what allows “Petite Maman” to run so smoothly is its lack of emphasis on the fantastical elements that drive its plot. There is no explanation of how or why Nelly is able to step into the past, nor is anyone looking for the reasoning – because that’s not the point here. It all happens very of matter-of-fact and things keep moving onward. If this were a true science fiction movie, of course, some sort of explanation would be required, but here it’s simply a vessel used to allow Nelly and her young mother to spend the time together they never have.
For those looking for dramatic swings and heart-wrenching moments on par with something like “Portrait,” expectations must be tempered. This time around things are far subtler, as divides are formed from innocent comments and the “climax” hinges on pancakes and rafting.
While its stars aren’t tasked with delivering flashy performances, the Sanz sisters turn in some of the best child acting in recent memory, simultaneously portraying pure innocence and carrying the weight of their worlds on their tiny shoulders. The real-life sisters’ dynamic on screen feels more along those lines, despite their mother-daughter relationship, but between their giggling and playing they share plenty of heavier moments together, too.
“Petite Maman” will leave audiences wanting to spend more time in this world together – just like Nelly and Marion – but in the end, you’ll know you were there for just the right amount.
“Petite Maman” is coming soon in the United States.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.