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Petite Maman review: A quiet and tender fairy tale

As a filmmaker, Céline Sciamma creates worlds where equality can exist even in relationships that are notoriously unequal. In 2019, she managed to even the playing field between an artist and her subject in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and in doing so, created one of the most indelible screen romances of recent memory. Three years later, Sciamma attempts to do something similar in her latest film, Petite Maman.

The film, a delicately, quietly heartbreaking fantasy, dares to try and bridge the gap that exists between a mother (Nina Meurisse) and her young daughter, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz). When the film begins, the pair are journeying together to the house of Nelly’s recently deceased grandmother in order to clear it of any of the woman’s remaining belongings. On the drive there, Nelly silently feeds her mother snacks from the back seat, the two of them communicating through a series of silent taps and nods.

Shortly after arriving, Nelly’s mother departs the house, leaving her daughter and husband (Stéphane Varupenne) to finish the difficult work without her. Nelly spends most of her time there exploring the nearby woods, where she eventually stumbles across a fort made by another girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). The pair are around the same age and look strikingly similar (the actors playing them are, notably, twins in real life), and a quick trip to Marion’s house leads Nelly to discover that her new friend is actually a version of her mother from the past.

Courtesy of NEON

The film, which runs just 72 minutes long, never stops to explain the magic that has allowed Nelly to meet her mother’s younger self. Sciamma, who directed the film and wrote its script, is not interested in bogging Petite Maman down with any unnecessary exposition or forced sense of logic. Instead, she tells the film at a measured pace and avoids overcomplicating its simple story, using Marion and Nelly’s playdates as a way to bring the latter closer to her mother.

Over the course of its runtime, the film gradually does away with the clutter and walls that have blocked Nelly from fully understanding those she holds most dear. Every scene in the film serves to only further strengthen and deepen Nelly’s relationships with both her mother and, through several breathtakingly tender conversations, her father. The film was shot by Portrait of a Lady on Fire cinematographer Claire Mathon, and its soft, warm look only further reinforces the tenderness and empathy present in Sciamma’s script.

When discussing the film, Sciamma has often cited the work of Hayao Miyazaki as an influence on Petite Maman, and the connection between the Japanese animator’s movies and her latest is undeniable. Like many of Miyazaki’s films, Petite Maman understands that a child’s world is one in which magic can be found around any corner or in the movements of shadows on the wall. It uses that magic to tell a deeply human story, one where a simple journey into a nearby forest has the power to close the gap of understanding that exists between a parent and their child.

Petite Maman hits theaters on Friday, April 22.

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