Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to her acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a small film with a big heart, a much quieter and restrained picture that delves into what it’s like to be a child in crucial moments of loss and transition.
Not since The Florida Project has a film captured the perspective of children as honestly and tenderly as Petite Maman, a film that never aims to be about children but is rather told through their eyes. A lovely tribute to everything that comes with being a child, it’s a film that celebrates innocence, imagination and the ability to heal. A slow-burn that lacks show-stopping moments or dramatic sequences, the power of the film exactly lies in its simplicity and meticulous ability to capture the singular experiences of seeing the world through young eyes.
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz, in a compelling performance) is an 8-year old with a big imagination. Her mother has just lost her own, Nelly’s grandmother, and the pair visit the grandmother’s house for one last time. As the two spend a few days in what was a childhood home to Nelly’s mother, Nelly begins to explore the near-by woods. She soon meets Marion (played by Joséphine’s twin sister Gabrielle), a similarly aged girl who bares a striking resemblance to Nelly. As a special friendship emerges between the two, Nelly begins to see this as much more than a coincidence and develops her own way of interpreting the moment.
What makes the film particularly compelling is its narrative devices which serves as both an entry point to how children perceive their surroundings and deal with loss, change and the complicated world of adults, as well as a surreal, completely unique merge of the past, the present and the future to deliver a striking commentary on generational relationships and the role of time in shaping our perspectives and abilities to forget and forgive.
Taking its time in its first third to get going, the film progresses as a poetic reflection on how children can, perhaps better than adults, cope with moments of change. Just as adults may feel all is lost, struggling to cross over or heal themselves, children’s lack of experience and unsophisticated judgement allows them to go beyond what’s at stake and process emotions of grief and loss differently.
One of the film’s most effective points are its visuals: Sciamma brilliantly employs mirroring visuals as we get to both draw parallels between Nelly and Marion on one hand, and the gradual from childhood to adulthood on the other. This is achieved through direct and indirect visual elements such as character accessories, colors, spaces and wonderfully calibrated dialogue that gracefully links what we see on screen with what’s going on inside the young protagonist’s mind.
A smart, and definitely deliberate, casting choice where both young girl look eerily similar helps articulate the film’s main themes in ways that never become didactic or exceedingly obvious. As the film progresses, it becomes more evident that while the story is rooted in reality, what goes inside Nelly’s mind and the imagination she uses to projects emotions is all the more genuine and realistic, even if how she describes it is a result of childlike wonder and endless imagination. Kudos to Sciamma for making us not only see inside a child’s mind, but also go completely on board with their imaginative projections. The final scene truly embodies the film’s uniqueness – serving as both a potential imaginative scene inside Nelly’s head and a realistic reconciliation moment that, while may or may not be a result of imagination, is grounded in genuine emotion and utter believability.
Bottom line: Blending concepts of time, maternal love, friendship, visual compositions and parallels between the past, the present and the future as well as generational relationships and striking resemblances between who we love and how we see ourselves and those around us, Petite Maman will go down as one of the most memorable films about childhood. A lovely tribute to who we once were, and the moments that shape us as we transition into adulthood.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. NEON will release Petite Maman in the U.S. later this year.