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petite maman review
Following her grandmother's death, a young girl befriends a girl with a curious resemblance to herself.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed  by: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse, Margo Abascal

petite maman poster

When I was a kid, children's TV shows didn't talk down to their young audience. Unlike today's age of mollycoddling helicopter parents who shield their kids from anything that might remotely upset them, children's entertainment was once seen as an opportunity to prepare children for the blows they would inevitably receive along life's path – deaths, disappointments, failed dreams. Witness the many memes that reassess Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a horror movie. You still see this in Japanese animation, but it's an idea that's largely died out in the west, though the recent A Monster Calls is a rare example. One western filmmaker keeping it alive is Céline Sciamma with her latest film, the tender supernatural tale Petite Maman.

petite maman review

The film's protagonist, eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), has just lost her grandmother. She's dealing with the loss better than her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse), who has sunk into a swamp of melancholy upon returning to her childhood home. Unable to process the memories that inhabit the home, Marion leaves her husband (Stéphane Varupenne) to look after Nelly.

Exploring the woods around her late grandmother's home, Nelly comes across a girl her own age, who looks like she could be her twin (she's played by Sanz's real life twin Gabrielle). Nelly learns that the girl's name is Marion, and she claims her grandmother's name was Nelly.

petite maman review

Is this a case of time travel, like Marty McFly meeting his teenage father in Back to the Future? Or is one of Nelly or Marion a ghost that inhabits the woods? Sciamma leaves the answer somewhat ambiguous, but I wouldn't spoil it for you even if I had a concrete answer.

No matter how much we love our parents, there's always that generation gap that divides us. When you're a child your parents seem incredibly old, and then one day you find yourself older than your mother was when she first dropped you at the gates of school. If you met your parents when you shared their age, would you befriend them? How would they relate to you without the burden of familial protection and duty? Sciamma toys with these questions in a manner that's deceptively simple, just letting us hang out with two young girls, but which nevertheless gets under our skin.

petite maman review

The Sanz twins deliver remarkable performances. They're child actors of the best kind, and what I mean by that is that we always feel like we're watching two children rather than two miniature adult performers, as can too often be the case with child stars. Just hanging out with these girls as they bond is a delight, and it often seems as though Sciamma just pointed her camera at her two young stars and let them behave as though they might regardless of whether a camera was present or not. Even a grump like myself, who generally goes out of his way to avoid the presence of kids, found myself won over by this delightful pair.

I imagine Petite Maman will play as well for children as for adults. It has a lesson for children in coping with loss, but that's not something adults will be immune to either. It's too easy to take our parents for granted, to think of them as guardians without an inner life. Sciamma's film reminds us that our mothers and fathers were once children too. We can never meet the children our parents once were, making Petite Maman something of a wishful fantasy of the most endearing kind.

Petite Maman
 is on UK VOD now.