Directed by: Céline Sciamma
Premise: A French film. An eight-year-old girl (Joséphine Sanz) spends time at her recently deceased grandmother’s house. She encounters another child (Gabrielle Sanz) in the woods and realizes that her new playmate is the younger version of her mother.
What Works: Petite Maman is a whimsical movie. Its conceit is magical in a way that is consistent with the imagination of a child. The filmmakers don’t spend any time explaining how this girl is transported into the past to play with the young version of her mother. The movie just presents it matter-of-factly, the children accept this as reality, and so does the viewer. Petite Maman has a naturalistic filmmaking style that suits its approach to the material. The camera is often positioned at the child’s height and it captures the world from their diminutive perspective. This is a story about the relationship between a mother and daughter and their friendship is vivid. Real life siblings Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz play eight-year-old Nelly and the young version of her mother. Perhaps owing to their real-life connection, the two of them have a vibrant on-screen friendship that informs the scenes between Nelly and her adult mother (Nina Meurisse). Petite Maman is also a portrait of the joy of play. Getting into adventures and creating, all for its own sake, has a nourishing effect on these girls. Nelly mourns the death of her grandmother while her young mother is anxious about an upcoming medical procedure and as the two girls bond they also reassure one another about the future.
What Doesn’t: Petite Maman is mostly a trifle. There’s just not much to it. The film is quite short—it’s only seventy-three minutes—but even with that brief running time it’s a leisurely paced movie. That pace suits Petite Maman’s tone and subject matter. This is a portrait of childhood imagination and play and so the filmmakers are appropriately unconcerned with narrative logic or deep themes. However, Petite Maman misses opportunities to do something meaningful with its characters. The film opens with Nelly’s grandmother having died without a chance to say goodbye. This time travel scenario offers Nelly a chance to do that but the grandmother stays in the background while Nelly plays games with the younger incarnation of her mother. Some of the children’s dialogue is unbelievably formal or precocious. This may be a problem with the subtitle translation but the young characters occasionally speak in a way that sounds more like an adult writing for children.
Bottom Line: Petite Maman is a nice and fanciful movie. It’s not especially deep but the scenes of the girls playing together frequently capture the joy of childhood play.
Episode: #901 (May 15, 2022)