Children often see life much differently than adults do. Sometimes wide-eyed, but forever inquisitive. However, there also comes a time when every child discovers their world is not a gentle place, either.
At the centre of Celine Sciamma’s quietly enchanting Petite Maman is such an impressionable youth named Nelly. Played by Joséphine Sanz (in a remarkable performance), she is just eight years old when her maternal grandmother dies.
The news hits especially hard for Nelly’s grieving mother Marion (Nina Meurisse). Deciding to take the burdensome drive back to her late mother’s rural house – and the place of her own childhood – both Nelly and her amiable father (Stéphane Vaeupenne) join too for moral support. Unfortunately, memories prove too overwhelming. Still bereft by loss, Marion departs leaving Nelly alone with her dad. It is here, in the wake of her absence, that the film shifts ever so slightly, evolving from family drama to subtle fairy-tale.
Playing in the woods one morning, Nelly befriends a girl her age named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). Not only do they look uncannily alike, but there’s an instant rapport. They talk and think the same way, in the same moments. They could almost be sisters. Or the same person.
Accompanied by Claire Mathon’s cinematography, which bathes the film in natural, autumn hues, director Sciamma pulls off the extraordinary job of creating sublime moments with the two young actresses at play or, in one lovely scene, messily making crepes. At only 72 minutes this is a small story, but not one with small ideas.
It’s a cinematic window by which one pleasantly eavesdrops on these bright children’s personalities, their fears, and finally, if Nelly truly is imagining everything or if somehow she has magically met her petite maman (i.e. little mom).
A wonderful, tender movie.