REVIEW: ‘Petite Maman’ is a simple must-watch

Nelly and her friend sitting side by side and staring off into the distance.
“Petite Maman” is an understated and beautiful film which follows a child grappling with her own grief while simultaneously trying to understand her mother’s pain. (Photo courtesy of IMDB)

This review contains spoilers. 

“Petite Maman,” which translates to “little mother” from French, is a phenomenal follow-up from writer and director Céline Sciamma after 2019’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Soft and elegant, the film narrates the story of a little girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who is dealing with the loss of her grandmother with her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne). As Nelly’s mother mourns the loss of her own mother and packs up her childhood home, she eventually leaves to grieve on her own, leaving her husband and daughter to clean out the home together. 

While Nelly wanders the surrounding woods, she meets another girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and the two become friends. The girls are strikingly similar, given the characters are being played by twins. The casting for these two characters serves a wonderful purpose. Not only are their performances extremely well done individually but also the natural comfortability between the girls makes the energy of the film much closer and more touching. As “Petite Maman” progresses and the narrative unpacks, the familiarity of Marion for Nelly transcends beyond just their similarities in facial features — Marion turns out to be Nelly’s mother. 

A story with time travel elements such as this one often feels as if it should be reserved for pieces with an abundance of CGI or editing. However, Sciamma delivers the tale in a new, fascinating way, one that is tender and minimalist. What feels similar to a large budget science fiction movie instead breaks emotional barriers and connects with the viewer in a special way. Watching it resembles uncovering an old, dusty fairytale book only to find that it’s brimming with the brightest stories. 

Sciamma’s range is notable, considering the shifts in tone from previous stories such as “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Tomboy” (2011) or “Water Lilies” (2007), yet her films do share similar themes of girlhood and womanhood. Her vision of childhood shows a deep appreciation for reflection and naturalism. According to Sciamma, much of her influence came from renowned artist and cofounder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki, so much so that she found herself asking, “What would Miyazaki do?” as she went along the creative process. Sciamma’s ability to translate the character’s experiences and emotions in a way that deeply connects with the audience is certainly a huge strength and contribution to the film’s success. With a fairly short run time of 72 minutes, “Petite Maman” is, in fact, petite but delivers the story of Nelly trying to understand her mother perfectly. Sciamma says in 72 minutes what some can’t say in hours. 

The cinematography, small and simple — as the title may suggest — fits the narrative like a glove. Grandiosity is unnecessary in this story, and cinematographer Claire Mathon, who collaborated with Sciamma previously on “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and also worked on Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer,” shows this thorough intimate lighting and warm, earthy autumnal tones. While many scenes take place in a forest, the audience can feel the leaves and wind surrounding them. It is almost as if the audience is there with Nelly and Marion amongst the trees, experiencing life through their eyes. However, it is certainly not a traditional coming-of-age story. While parts of the film certainly fit this mold, others feel plucked directly from a world of fantastical elements or a ghost story. It’s not overwhelming, scary or absurd but rather comforting. 

One thing is for certain, this film should be watched with a box of tissues at hand. Whether one can understand Nelly or Marion, Sciamma’s painting of intergenerational conflict between parents and children through the eyes of an eight-year-old is touching and beautiful. The French filmmaker once again proves that she is able to reach the sublime with her work. 

Previously nominated for a number of awards, including a BAFTA and the Golden Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, “Petite Maman” will be released in the United States April 22 in theaters. 

Rating: 5/5