Writer / director Céline Sciamma‘s “Petite Maman” tells an intimate, sophisticated story with just the right amount of clever gimmicks. This small scale, nostalgic tale of childhood time travel and fantasy is layered with themes of pain, grief, regret, and loss, all bound together by the power of imagination.
Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) regrets that she didn’t give her grandmother a proper goodbye before she suddenly dies in her nursing home. The young girl accompanies her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) to her childhood home to help clean out the now empty rooms. While her parents are busy sorting through cherished belongings, Nelly spends her days exploring the surrounding woods. One afternoon, she encounters another kid named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) and the two become fast friends. As the pair begin learning more about each other, they find their similarities don’t just stop at their near-lookalike appearances and shared family names.
It’s a tender story and, like Sciamma’s previous film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” is decidedly woman-centric in its narrative and themes. This project is all about female connection and seeing the world through a child’s eyes. The film is beautifully directed, and Sciamma draws wonderful work from her cast. The Sanz sisters bring an enviable maturity to their quiet, nuanced performances, and a majority of the story’s charm is elevated by their overall sincerity and warmth. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is the matter-of-fact reveal. There’s no big explanation or exposition, it just is.
While the film has a short runtime, it’s still about 20 minutes too long. It runs out of steam before the finale, and an abundance of good ideas grow jumbled as the narrative progresses. In the end, Sciamma finds success with “Petite Maman” by mixing her tale of grief with just enough childhood magic.
This film was screened for review at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
By: Louisa Moore