From building a gigantic tree house in the forest, to cooking crêpes, to acting out an elaborate make-believe drama, Petite Maman (2021) is all about the joys of being a child, this touching film revelling in the moments between friends that seem so small when they happen, but become lasting memories over time. It’s a sentiment beautifully portrayed by writer-director Céline Sciamma throughout and a feeling we can all relate to, her poignant narrative stirring up our own recollections of the relationships that shaped us when we were young. Yet the friendship at the centre of this story is unlike anything we ever experienced as kids, a unique, magical element turning this into something more akin to a fairytale than the drama we’re expecting.
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is very much a solitary child when we first meet her though, happy enough in the presence of her own company as she wanders the forest collecting acorns or explores her grandmother’s old home, her parents in the middle of clearing it out after her recent death. Indeed, it’s rather telling that when her Dad (Stéphane Varupenne) finds a paddleboard and gives it to Nelly, she thinks it’s the perfect toy as “it’s a game you play alone”. Her Mum (Nina Meurisse) is the only friend she seems to need, the pair helping each other through this difficult time by sharing the thoughts and feelings they can’t tell anyone else, particularly Nelly who regrets not having said a proper goodbye to her grandmother when she had the chance. But with her Mum unable to deal with her own grief and the memories the clear-out brings up, their bond becomes strained, Nelly waking one morning to find her gone without any explanation. Alone and with no-one to confide in, Nelly meets a girl (Gabrielle Sanz) in the woods who she’s never seen before, the two of them striking up an immediate relationship after she helps the girl collect branches for her tree house. It’s only when Nelly gets to know her new friend that she begins to realise there’s something out of the ordinary about her – something that she sees as an amazing opportunity not to be missed.
It’s this unusual, magical aspect that makes Petite Maman so compelling to watch, Sciamma pulling her story in a completely unexpected direction and injecting it with a sense of childlike wonder that has us eager to follow Nelly on the exciting adventure unravelling before her. Yet Sciamma handles the fantastical side of her narrative in such a delicate, subtle way that it could almost be real, her writing and direction focusing instead on the everyday moments between the two friends as they get to know each other. With her camera placed at the girls’ height, we see everything through their eyes, Sciamma allowing us to better understand their imaginative, curious view of the world and reminding us what childhood actually feels like. Sciamma also emphasises the importance of nature and how the outdoors is the ideal nurturing playground for the girls, Claire Mathon’s gorgeous cinematography highlighting the dazzling autumnal colours of the woods while Jean-Baptiste de Laubier’s (aka. Para One) incredible soundtrack reflects the pure joy of these scenes (one particularly spine-tingling song accompanies a sequence of the girls’ rowing a boat to a concrete structure in the middle of a lake – a sublime moment that I guarantee will bring a tear to your eye).
While Sciamma has perfectly captured the exhilaration of childhood and the lasting friendships it can create, Petite Maman’s true heart lies with the relationship between mother and daughter, Sciamma portraying how valuable that bond can be, yet also how precarious. Nelly and her Mum certainly have their ups and downs (her sudden disappearance is a tad harsh in light of everything else her daughter is dealing with), but their connection is palpable whenever they’re together, the two of them sharing such a deep understanding that they instinctively know what the other wants, whether that be someone to listen as they talk about the past, or a tight hug to serve as a reminder that they’re not alone. Indeed, they’re so close that they often don’t need words to communicate, one great example being a scene in which Nelly feeds her crisps from the backseat of their car, this tender gesture making her Mum smile and briefly forget about her loss. Moments like this always have so much nostalgia and sentiment to them that it’s as if they’re actual memories coming alive onscreen, Nina Meurisse and Joséphine Sanz’s natural performances as mother and daughter also adding to the profound sense of realism that Sciamma has been able to establish throughout.
Petite Maman is such a lovely, enchanting film that you’ll never want it to end, Sciamma fully immersing us in the wonderful world she has created and the relationships she has so beautifully brought to life. Her script is superb, ideas about grief, the past, childhood and the mother-daughter bond all delicately explored, while her restrained direction puts the performances of her cast up front and centre, coaxing two incredible turns from her young leads in the process. Yet it is the balance between the supernatural elements of her story and the everyday moments that makes this particularly fascinating, Sciamma crafting an exquisite realist fairytale in which magic can be found in the most unexpected of places. Like Nelly, we just have to know where to look for it.