Eight year old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just said “goodbye” to her grandmother. In the wake of the loss, she is taken by her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to her grandmother’s old house; the trio plans only to stay for a few days so they can clear things out and ultimately say goodbye to the home in which Nelly’s mum grew up. During their stay, Nelly asks, among other things, about an old treehouse her mother built when she was little. Following the first night at the house, Nelly wakes up to find her mother has left without saying goodbye, leaving behind her daughter and husband to finish the work. Later, walking through the surrounding woods, Nelly runs into another girl of the same age (Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine’s identical twin sister) building a treehouse.
At its heart (of which it has an abundance) Petite Maman can and does say different things to different people, all of which are unmistakably profound. The way the narrative reveals itself traverses the fantastical, but is nonetheless extremely poignant, and ever so unique in its look at a child’s processing of emotions. Given its distinctive telling of a familiar setup, it’s a wonder Petite Maman never feels gimmicky; lesser filmmakers would have set their ambitions at a more boastful, preachy, and ultimately damaging height. Instead, director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) achieves true insight with simplicity and presenting the film’s ideas straight (even if the story itself does a bit of twisting and turning).
The two aforementioned lead actresses, Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, are enchanting in their respective roles. There’s an impressive touch of naturalness and believability in their performances, which does wonders to ground a story that, again, could have floated off into the stratosphere with its imaginative plot. Avoiding a common flaw faced by child actors (and actors in general, to be blunt), the sisters never give the impression of simply reciting the lines they’re given, but deeply understanding those lines as well. These two will steal your heart and not give it back even as the credits roll; they are endearing and heartwarming in every sense of the word, and absolutely perfect for these roles.
Sciamma’s writing and direction of the duo should also be applauded. Dialogue is minimal in Petite Maman, giving the spaces between lines much more weight overall. The seldom-employed exposition we do get is effectively revealing of those speaking it, and gives us a window into their brains while still maintaining subtlety and never feeling too on-the-nose. And the film as a whole is very committed to this less-is-more mentality, much to its benefit; it’s patient, short, and ever so sweet.
For such a compact package of a film, clocking in at just 72 minutes, Petite Maman expertly encapsulates everything you want in a feel-good movie. It’s endearing beyond words, simplistic yet poignant, and heartwarming and heartbreaking all at once. Overall, it’s a film that wraps its audience up in a big hug and never lets go, and is well worth your time.
Overall rating: 8/10