This Petite Maman review contains light spoilers.
Last year I bought my parents a present that was really for myself. StoryWorth is a service that has people answer a question a week for a year until they’ve written something like an amateur memoir. I’ve recorded so many of my histories as a writer, sharing experiences and feelings, capturing an event in the moment or recontextualizing something with the benefit of time. But not everyone is a writer. My parents aren’t writers. I still wanted their stories.
As I’ve read their entries week by week, I’ve delighted in new information revealed, felt gratitude to have some of their oft-told stories committed for posterity, and yearned for even more. I have always yearned for even more.
I think I realized my parents were people at a younger age than most. And with that realization came a desire to know them as people, to understand their joys and their sadness. Our parents are supposed to be the people closest to us but there’s always a gulf between. When you’re queer with cishet parents that gulf is often larger.
Céline Sciamma’s (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Water Lilies) latest masterpiece finds a solution to this divide. Petite Maman is about an eight year old named Nelly whose grandma has just died. She accompanies her parents to clean her grandma’s house, feeling her own sadness and the sadness of her mom. She finds solace in the nearby woods where her mom played as a child and when her mom suddenly leaves she finds a companion in another child, Marion — her mom at her age.
This premise may suggest a Disney Channel Original Movie more than it does the work of one of our greatest film artists, but within this simplicity it finds its depth. This is a movie that aims to capture the perspective of children without forgetting the emotional intelligence so many of them carry. While many of Sciamma’s films have an epic lushness to them, Petite Maman is more reminiscent of the quiet rhythms of Tomboy.
And while that film may seem more obviously queer than this, Sciamma’s gaze is never lost. Some of the film’s best moments find Nelly and young Marion playing elaborate games of make believe. In these games, Marion plays all the femme characters and Nelly plays the masc ones. Within the socially accepted construction of childhood games, Nelly is allowed to express masculinity not just in front of her mom but with her mom’s encouragement.
If these moments — and Sciamma’s filmography — suggest a difference between Nelly and her mother, much of the film aims to show their unity. Nelly and Marion are played by Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz, identical twin sisters. The more time the characters spend together, the harder it is to keep track of which is which. Someday Nelly will grow up and feel a distance from her mom the way we all do — and should — but for now they’re not just connected — they’re the same.
Sciamma has always been exceptional with child actors and that’s true here. Nelly and Marion are not given words beyond their years — instead Sciamma trusts their faces to fill in the simple dialogue. Whether it’s in those scenes of make believe or when they’re playing a board game or making crêpes, the easy laughter of these children makes the painful moments even harder. You want to protect them from life — child and mother, young and old.
So many moments in this film have already found a permanent place in my heart. In just 70 minutes, Sciamma has created a complete experience — a patient, emotional journey that will make you ache with the beauty and limitations of life.
There are seven more weeks in the year and I’m struggling to choose the last questions for my parents’ StoryWorth. It’s as if the perfect question could unlock some layer of their humanity and bring us closer, person to person. But there are limits to non-fiction. Céline Sciamma understands that. Some things are only possible in the imagination of a child, the power of a song, the fantasy of a story well-told and out of reach. Some things are only possible in a magical forest where time does not exist and is always running out. Some things are only possible in the darkness of a movie theatre or the glow of your screen.
Petite Maman will likely be released next year but many film festivals are still virtual so you can watch it at home as soon as next weekend through the Houston Cinema Arts Festival.