French director and writer Celine Sciamma follows up her much admired 2019’s historical romance Portrait of a Lady on Fire with Petite Maman, a more intimate and timely film about death, grief and losing your loved ones. It also features probably the best pair of acting twins since those creepy girls who haunted the Overlook Hotel in 1980’s The Shining.
We first meet Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), an 8-year-old girl, who is grieving the death of her maternal grandmother while helping her parents clear out her mom’s childhood home. She goes outside and runs into a girl (played by Sanz’s real-life identical twin Gabrielle) who is building a treehouse fort in the woods. Not to reveal too much, Nelly’s new-found friend Marion is also 8 years old and looks just like her. She, too, lost her grandmother just recently.
At a brisk running time of 72 minutes, Sciamma is in no hurry as she seeds her script with hints. Nelly sees her mother in the woods again and learns that Marion is due for an operation to prevent her from getting the disease that her grandmother had. When matters get slightly weird, Nelly seeks out her dad in the present and gets her wish as she helps him shave off his very heavy beard.
While going through the house, Nelly realizes she is from the future and that this is her grandmother’s abode and that Marion is her mother. Alarmed by events, she flees and is relieved when she returns to the house and finds her father in the present. There is a sort of time-travel element to the story but Petite Maman is soaked in real emotion. With our on-going COVID-19 crisis that continues has disrupted life as we know it and the countless lives lost because of the epidemic, this is the kind of soothing entertainment many of us desperately desire when times are bad.