‘Petite Maman’ Movie Review: Céline Sciamma Gets Real Personal With a Beautiful Mother/Daughter Drama Fantasy [AFI Fest 2021]

Writer/director Céline Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers of modern times. Petite Maman is yet another reason why she deserves every bit of respect that she’s gained thus far on the film festival circuit and around the world. Sciamma creates a fascinating narrative in a universe filled with wonder and emotional weight within a concise 72-minute runtime. Petite Maman is truly a special experience that deserves your time and undivided attention.

The ‘Petite Maman’ plot is simplistic, yet impactful

'Petite Maman' review stars Joséphine Sanz as Nelly and Gabrielle Sanz as Marion with an arm around each other looking at a treehouse
Joséphine Sanz as Nelly and Gabrielle Sanz as Marion | Neon

Nelly’s (Joséphine Sanz) grandmother recently died and her family is going through a period of mourning. Her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) head to her home to clean out Nelly’s mother’s childhood home. Nelly’s parents have known each other since they were children. Her mother reminisces of years long past, but her father seems to have forgotten such memories.

Nelly explores the house and surrounding woods after hearing about a treehouse that her mother described from her childhood. She meets a young girl named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who’s building a treehouse herself. They quickly get acquainted and discover that they’re the same age. Nelly and Marion grow a close bond in a short amount of time and learn more about themselves along the way.

‘Petite Maman’ is a mother/daughter story about identity

Petite Maman explores the theme of identity through the context of childhood, a mother/daughter relationship, and friendship. Sciamma’s screenplay doesn’t incorporate a whole lot of dialogue, but it doesn’t need to. A series of exchanges quickly establish Nelly and her mother’s relationship. For example, Nelly feeds her mother snacks as they drive to the childhood home that they’re about to clean.

The narrative intentionally focuses entirely on the perspective of a child. It’s a coming-of-age story that avoids the genre’s familiar conventions. Sciamma wants the viewer to see the world through a child’s eyes. Petite Maman captures the treehouse and the excitement of a new friend with a sense of awe. However, Nelly’s mother and father’s childhoods are also briefly touched upon. They have lost that sense of wonder but can remember things such as a fear of the dark.

Sciamma’s theme of identity is explored through the relationship between the two children. They dress up and act out scenes together. One sequence, in particular, sees one of them put on a tie and talk about the passion for acting. This is all occurring under the notion that time is fleeting and tomorrow is never guaranteed, so it’s important to truly savor these moments of childhood.

Céline Sciamma’s most personal film to date

Sciamma’s Petite Maman may have a short running time, but it feels like the filmmaker’s most personal movie thus far. It utilizes silence throughout its running time to really let the viewer drift away into its world. Cinematographer Claire Mathon truly capitalizes on that. The film captures interiors with a certain darkness, while the surrounding woods are bright, colorful, and beautiful. Petite Maman doesn’t waste a single frame.

This is a heavily relatable film that brings the viewer back to childhood. It reminds the audience of a simpler time in the form of a drama fantasy. Petite Maman‘s sense of child wonderment contrasts with the mourning of lost memories. Childhood is temporary and so is that naive outlook on the world. Nelly’s parents present two different perspectives on those memories: one lives their life looking forward and the other struggles with trying to make sense of the past. This is beautiful storytelling.

Petite Maman is superbly intimate and meaningfully crafted. There’s a lot to take away from Sciamma’s 72-minute movie that makes one reflect. This is a story that’s never afraid to be vulnerable and open up its heart without adding too much fluff. Petite Maman is a beautiful tale gushing with emotion and wonderment. It’s Sciamma’s most personal film yet.

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