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'Petite Maman' Tells a Moving Story of Loss and Imagination From a Kid's Perspective

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WOODLAND CREATURES Two children form an unusual friendship in Sciamma's quiet but powerful drama. - COURTESY OF NEON
  • Courtesy Of Neon
  • WOODLAND CREATURES Two children form an unusual friendship in Sciamma's quiet but powerful drama.

I've been a fan of French director Céline Sciamma since her 2011 film Tomboy, but her 18th-century lesbian romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) made her movies must-sees for me. Her follow-up, the festival favorite Petite Maman (2021), lacks the sweep, period setting and fire of Portrait. Clocking in at just 72 minutes, it's a smaller and quieter film in every sense. But it's absolutely worth seeing — currently, at the Savoy Theater in Montpelier and Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington.

The deal

Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) recently said a final goodbye to her grandmother. As she and her mom (Nina Meurisse) clean out the deceased woman's house, Nelly frets over the fact that she didn't know that goodbye would be their last.

Nelly's mom goes off for some time alone with her grief, leaving Nelly with her dad (Stéphane Varupenne). Roaming the woods around the house, Nelly meets a girl her own age, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who is making a fort from fallen branches, just as Nelly's mom did in the same woods as a child.

The two become fast friends, and Marion brings Nelly to her home, which seems suspiciously similar to the one where Nelly is already staying. Nelly and Marion look remarkably alike, too. In the autumnal haze of these woods, time may have become permeable.

Will you like it?

When Nelly and Marion meet, they gaze at each other without smiling. Indeed, both smile just a handful of times in the film, and only when they're genuinely amused or having fun.

That may sound like a trivial observation, but the dearth of smiles is key to understanding what's so special and rare about the performances that Sciamma draws from these actors (who are twins in real life). We expect simpering and playing to the camera from child actors because it's a long Hollywood tradition. Even off-screen, we expect people in general, and women and girls in particular, to use smiles to show us that they're sociable, cooperative and nonthreatening.

In Petite Maman, however, Nelly and Marion immediately understand each other in a way that makes social smiling redundant. In their conversations, in their silences and in their imaginative play, they're on the same wavelength. Fascinating to watch, their connection should ring true to anyone who remembers meeting a stranger as a child and instantly recognizing that person as a friend.

Of course, Nelly and Marion aren't exactly strangers; the movie's title makes their true relationship clear. Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon use visual transitions and cues to make it equally clear — in a gentle way — that Marion and her home reside in Nelly's imagination.

None of this is a spoiler, because the boundary between reality and fantasy isn't the point. Nelly isn't delusional any more than the hero of Richard Linklater's recent Apollo 10 1/2: A Space Age Childhood is delusional when he tells his tall tale about being the first kid to walk on the moon.

Both movies are about the power of childhood play to transform the world while coexisting easily with reality, dwelling in its liminal spaces and shadowy interstices. When Nelly first sleeps in her mom's childhood room, her mom tells her about a scary "panther" that used to appear on the wall. Later, Nelly sees the panther for herself — a play of shadows waiting for a human brain to transform them into a threat. But she isn't afraid, because she's already beginning to understand that the imagination that concocts monsters can also concoct ways of dealing with pain and loss.

For Nelly, her new friend Marion is just such a coping strategy — a theme that Sciamma presents with great subtlety. Having established the close connection between Nelly and her mother through wordless scenes and gestures, she introduces a threat to that connection: the depression that separates mother and daughter.

Rather than judge her mom for needing time away from her, however, Nelly uses imagination and empathy to understand her. As the two little girls dress up in grown-up clothes and act out soap opera-worthy scenarios, they're doing what children have always done when they play let's-pretend — making their peace with potentially disturbing aspects of the adult world.

Petite Maman plays out like a masterful short story, just visually heightened enough — with its blue shadows and warm autumn reds — to gain the status of a fable. The movie evokes childhood vulnerability and resilience without condescension. Perhaps the ultimate compliment is that it's possible to imagine sensitive kids loving the film, too.

If you like this, try...

Tomboy (2011; Kanopy, Criterion Channel, rentable): In a new neighborhood, a 10-year-old who's always identified as a girl starts exploring a different gender identity in this movie that demonstrates Sciamma's skill with child actors.

Girlhood (2014; Kanopy, Showtime, Strand Releasing, rentable): Sciamma investigates race and gender on the working-class outskirts of Paris in this drama about a teen who re-creates herself to join a gang.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019; Kanopy, Hulu, rentable): It's worth noting, given current events, that this movie features the gentlest abortion scene I've ever seen in a film. The procedure is performed by a peasant midwife in a hovel with her children in attendance.