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Petite Maman: a tender story of childhood, friendship and family ★★★★★

By Vanessa Huang

Much like French director Céline Sciamma’s previous work, her fifth feature Petite Maman focuses on female relationships. Whereas Portrait of a Lady on Fire depicted a romantic relationship, Petite Maman shifts its focus to a young girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) in a quietly magical film that perfectly captures grief and loneliness.

Nelly, Marion and Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne) take a trip to Marion’s recently deceased mother’s house to clear out her belongings when soon after arriving, Marion suddenly leaves. Nelly shortly happens upon another young girl (Gabrielle Sanz) in the nearby woods, who also happens to be named Marion, and who Nelly quickly realises is in fact her mother as a child. This is a discovery that is delivered delicately and matter-of-factly by Sciamma, never venturing into the supernatural, and the audience is drawn in, unquestioning. How exactly her mother became a child, or indeed whether this is actually happening in real life, is ultimately irrelevant to the story. 

Delightful scenes of Nelly and Marion becoming fast friends follow, ranging from them role-playing a police procedural to sharing their hopes and dreams for the future. Nelly learns of her mother’s childhood aspirations of becoming an actress, and tells Marion about what her future will be like. These scenes embody a sense of quiet melancholy. It is bittersweet: we see heartwarming moments of the two girls bridging the intergenerational gap in their relationship and forging a stronger bond, but at the same time, we’re reminded of the distance that was there before. The film forces us to confront the fact that we may never truly know the people that we love the most. Nelly very poignantly points out: “Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide. There’s just no one to tell them to.”

Petite Maman never takes a melodramatic turn; it simply immerses us in everyday scenes that are as stunning as they are unassuming. Early in the film, Nelly expresses her guilt to her adult mother over never having said a proper goodbye to her grandmother. When Marion asks how she would have liked to say goodbye, Nelly silently hugs her. Another scene shows Nelly quietly feeding her driving mother snacks from the backseat of a car, shortly after they receive the news of Nelly’s grandmother’s passing. The care that we show one another doesn’t come in big moments and loud declarations – we see it in hugs, shared looks, small acts of service.

Running at a mere 72 minutes, Petite Maman is a masterful portrayal of grief through the lens of fairytale-like childhood innocence, delivering a gut punch filled with both heartbreak and hope. The film offers what many of us desperately wish for: a second chance to say goodbye.

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