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Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in Petite Maman.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

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Petite Maman

Written and directed by Celine Sciamma

Starring Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz

Classification PG; 72 minutes

Opens May 6 in select theatres


Critic’s pick


You only have five more days until Mother’s Day, so here’s a tip for stragglers everywhere (hi, Mom!): buy two tickets for Celine Sciamma’s perfect little film Petite Maman, and treat the woman who gave you life to 72 minutes of pure, heartbreaking, whimsical cinematic wonder.

After going big, in the historical period romance sense, with 2019′s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Sciamma goes small in all the right ways for her epic-in-miniature follow-up, which finds comfort in the space between love and grief. Shot with a small cast in just a handful of locations, Petite Maman represents both the absolute apex of pandemic-era filmmaking as well as proof that between this, 2014′s Girlhood and 2011′s Tomboy, Sciamma is one of contemporary cinema’s most astute chroniclers of adolescence.

A delicate look at the bridge between parents and their children, Petite Maman opens with the eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) helping her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) pack up the things of her grandmother, who just passed away in her nursing home. Nelly is a curious, kind, sensitive child – she takes special care to bid farewell to each of her late grandmother’s neighbours – but lonely. And she has a nervousness to her, especially around her mother, who is clearly going through her own series of small but not insignificant crises, either in concert or in conflict with Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne).

But Petite Maman is not a dour or grim family drama. When Nelly and her parents reach her grandmother’s home in the French countryside – there is more packing to be done, photos to be collected – the young girl is left to explore the nearby woods. Which is when a funny, unexpected thing happens: Nelly meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, twin sister of Joséphine), aged 8. Suddenly, Nelly has a new friend to play with, as well as a fantastic window into the past, where she not only gets to know her mother as a child, but also the younger, vibrant, warm version of the grandmother (Margo Abascal) who she only knew as old, frail, tired.

The blip of time is never explained, nor does Sciamma position the events as being a dream or taking place entirely in Nelly’s head. This is made clear during one crucial, heartbreaking point mid-film, in which Nelly introduces Marion to her adult father, who greets the young girl with only a trace of half-knowing curiosity. If Nelly is delighted by the prospect of playing with her mother as only children can, then Nelly’s father is both oblivious and overwhelmed. And the magical-realism mystery is all the better for being left unsolved – Sciamma knows exactly what she is doing, wisely valuing emotion and character over plot-device mechanics.

Quiet and reverent, as if filmed entirely in hushed tones, Sciamma’s film is supremely confident in its every element. Although who knows what Petite Maman might have looked like – might have felt like – if the Sanz sisters (who in real life call themselves not twins but “sisters born on the same day”) were not involved. Building a film around child actors is always a tricky prospect, but Sciamma was either very lucky in finding the sisters or supremely skilled at wringing two perfect little performances – likely both. (Bonus: The film also features the cutest murder-mystery game that you will ever see, with extra-bonus points for just how adorable the words “Coca-Cola” sound coming from the Sanz siblings.)

At only 72 minutes, Petite Maman is that increasingly rare film that leaves you wanting more – far more. But like Nelly’s brief visit with Marion, all wondrous things must come to an end. But don’t take its title too literally: Mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, this film is for everyone.

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