French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to her highly acclaimed “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” isn’t the big audacious next film you might expect after a big success. In fact the beautifully intimate “Petite Maman” couldn’t be more different. With its small scope and Sciamma’s delicate touch, this warm and aching fable examines coping with loss and mother/daughter bonds in a voice that speaks to all ages.
The movie opens in a nursing home with an eight-year-old girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) walking from room to room saying goodbye to each of the elderly residents. As she enters her grandmother’s room near the end of the hall she sees her mother (Nina Meurisse) removing pictures from the wall. We learn that Nelly’s grandmother has passed away and they’re there to collect the last of her things.
Sciamma wastes no time earning our empathy as we watch this young girl try to process everything she’s seeing. You can practically see her mind at work as she quietly lays on her grandmother’s bed or as she watches her parents’ sorrow-drenched embrace. And then we get one of the most beautiful scenes as the camera hones in on Marion’s sad face as she’s driving down the road. A little hand from the back seat comes into the frame and feeds her a chip, then another. The hands return with a juice box and finally a warm heartfelt embrace. It’s a sweet child’s effort to comfort her hurting mother.
These small but meaningful touches can be found all through Sciamma’s swift and compact 72 minutes. Her simple yet full-hearted mothers-and-daughters story may have death as a central ingredient, but it blossoms into a beautiful and poignant blend of reality and fantasy. This fully comes into focus when Nelly and her parents travel to her grandmother’s rustic country home for the unenviable task of clearing out her things. After a couple of days it becomes too much for her mother who suddenly heads back to the city. That leaves Nelly and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) to finish things up.
While walking in the nearby woods, Nelly notices a little girl about her age dragging a large tree limb. She asks Nelly for help and two carry the limb to a hut the girl in building. The next day Nelly heads back into the woods where she meets the girl again. They strike up a conversation and we learn the little girl’s name is Marion. That name is significant, but I’ll let you discover why for yourself. Sciamma soaks us in the girls’ budding friendship, offering a number of charming scenes that are sweet and tender on the surface, but that also explore their deeper relationships with their mothers.
It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the film’s low-key yet enchanting twist. The movie itself doesn’t wait long to show its cards, but it’s still better left for you to discover on your own. Me? I was swept away by the genuineness of its emotions which range from heartwarming to heartbreaking. The simplicity of Sciamma’s storytelling and her unfussy presentation may not stand out in a crowd. But they serve this story perfectly and show us a filmmaker with a grounded, true-to-life vision – one that penetrates your soul and sticks with you for days after watching.