In a world full of movies with runtimes that often reach or exceed three hours, there’s something so confident in Celine Sciamma’s 72-minute long Petite Maman. A quiet, poetic, and lovely ode to parenthood and loss, Petite Maman is Sciamma’s fifth feature-length film and her follow-up to the widely acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Sciamma’s strength as a writer and director is her seemingly effortless ability to instill grand, sweeping emotions into movies that feel personal and intimate.
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is eight years old and has just lost her grandmother (Margot Abascal). She accompanies her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to the home where her mother grew up. Now that her grandmother has passed, Nelly’s parents plan to empty and sell the house. Since the movie is told through the eyes of Nelly, the circumstances of her grandmother’s passing aren’t ever fully known. It’s clear, though, that Nelly’s mother is finding it difficult to return to her childhood home so soon after losing her mother.
Nelly wakes up after spending one night in her grandmother’s house to find that her mother has gone home. Her father tells Nelly that being in this house is making her mother sad and she needed to go away while he and Nelly finish packing. Most of the work falls to her father, as Nelly is far more interested in adventuring through the nearby woods. She remembers her mother talking about a treehouse she’d made when she was a little girl, and Nelly sets out to find it.
In a clearing in the forest, Nelly sees another young girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who is building a treehouse in the exact place her mother had said she built hers. The two form the sort of immediate friendship that can only exist between kids who are in need of a friend. As they spend more time together, Nelly begins to feel that Marion might be her mother as a young girl.
What’s so special about Petite Maman is the magical realism that allows Nelly to get to know her mother as a person outside of the identity of “mother.” Kids often see their parents only as caretakers. It’s nearly impossible for Nelly to picture her parents at the age she is now, as young and care-free individuals. For a brief three-day span, Nelly’s mother is Marion and she’s Nelly’s best friend. They giggle as they make pancakes, write, direct, and star in a movie of their own making, and cap it all off with the quintessential youthful activity: a sleepover. Childhood friendships rarely last forever, but their impact is essential to growth and development.
While she hangs out with her mother as a child, Nelly also has a second chance to say goodbye to her grandmother. This is very important to Nelly because she feels as though she didn’t say a proper goodbye when her grandmother passed away. Try as she might, however, she learns that there is no perfect way to do it. Everyone always wants more time. The problem with life is that it’s finite, but love is not. Love for another person will never be fully distilled into a proper goodbye.
Petite Maman is an exquisite reminder that we should all valiantly try to know the people we love, to find a deep understanding of what makes them specifically them. The way they like their breakfast, their childhood fears, the doodles in their school notebooks. Petite Maman is about the sanctity of sharing a life with someone and fiercely protecting the human connection.