There is an inherent barrier between you and your parents that cannot be broken down no matter how strong the relationship may be. It is the barrier of time; you can be told as many stories about their experiences before you were born as they can recall, but the fact is they were a different person before you came into the equation and the truth of what they experienced gets diluted in its retelling. Parents and children can never be on equal footing, and for that reason there can never be a true understanding of the other. The new film Petite Maman from Céline Sciamma finds the auteur following up on her international breakthrough Portrait Of A Lady On Fire with a magical little tale that aims to close that gap. 

8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is first seen walking from room to room in a retirement home, bidding the residents farewell in the unselfconscious way that only the innocence of childhood provides. She ends her parade in the room where her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), is packing up the last remaining possessions of her mother. This is a family in mourning, struggling to figure out what a world without Grandma and Mom looks like in her absence. The relationship between Marion and Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne) likewise feels tenuous as the pair radiate cordiality rather than tender love. Nelly is a very curious child, and she gazes at her mom as if she is a strange creature she longs to know more fully. Sciamma does not hold your hand to take you through the particulars of their dynamic, but an entire world in encapsulated in a simple bedtime exchange: Marion playfully says to her child, “You always ask questions at bedtime,” at which point Nelly replies with the unintentionally brutal, “That’s when I see you.”

The DNA of this tale could be linked with fantasy, but more so in the way that resides in the imagination of children rather than specifically with orcs and dragons. A retreat back to Grandma’s country house to settle affairs blossoms into an opportunity for Nelly to achieve something magical. One morning, Nelly awakes to discover her mother has left in the middle of the night, leaving Nelly in the care of her father. While he is busy with adult responsibilities, Nelly sets out on the grandest adventure one can experience as a child: searching for the old fort that Marion built when she was a child. In this process of discovery, she finds 8-year-old Marion (played by Sanz’s twin sister, Gabrielle) in the process of constructing the fort. The realization is not arrived at immediately, but the situation becomes a bit more clear when Marion takes Nelly back to the house she is currently staying, now fully furnished with her Grandma (Margot Abascal) much younger and still alive. 

This high-concept narrative is not interested in explaining the particulars of how this rift in time has happened. What matters is that the characters accept what is happening and carry on in such a matter-of-fact manner that you have no choice but to go along with it, as well. It is through the fantastical that the unspoken barrier between mother and child has collapsed and given an opportunity for a different kind of connection. It is the gift that anyone who has experienced distance with someone they love longs to have. The friendship between Nelly and “little” Marion may be fleeting, but while she is experiencing it she is able to converse with Marion more freely and unearth where some of the modern sadness may have originated. Of course, these weighty insights are coupled with joyous moments of the pair attempting to make crepes in the kitchen and sailing out to a floating landmark in a lake. What better way to understand your parents than to go on adventures with them? 

At a scant 72 minute runtime, there may be a desire to refer to this as a slight effort, but the thematic weight that is packed into this swift journey should quickly disprove that. The performances from the two young sisters are some of the most natural performances you will see all year, and they should not be discounted due to their age. It took a director with a deft hand such as Sciamma to create an environment that would allow them both to flourish. At every turn, Sciamma chooses to keep the action understated which keeps the emphasis on the character dynamics rather than plot mechanics. It is a choice that rewards time and time again, leaving the audience to get lost in the cinematic spell it is casting. Petite Maman is the magical intergenerational bridge which grants you the wish-fulfillment of understanding and being understood. 

Petite Maman screened in the World Cinema section of AFI FEST 2021. The film will be distributed by Neon in the United States in 2022. 

Director: Céline Sciamma

Writers: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne and Margot Abascal

Rated: NR

Runtime: 72m

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

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