Quietly emotional and tenderly sincere, Petite Maman is a poignant tale about loss, connection, and growing up. Blending gentle fantasy elements with grounded, naturalistic performances, writer-director Céline Sciamma tells the story of 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), whose parents take her with them to clear out her mother’s childhood home after the death of her beloved grandmother. To her surprise, she finds much more waiting for her there than her mother’s old books and playthings.
Left to entertain herself while her parents — first, both of them, and then just her father, after her mother abruptly departs — work on going through her grandmother’s things, Nelly discovers an old hut made out of sticks that her mother built as a child. And then she meets a little girl just her own age, who looks exactly like her and lives in a home that seems extremely familiar. Viewers understand before Nelly does that this other girl, Marion (Ganz’ twin, Gabrielle), is Nelly’s mother as a child, and the two have somehow connected across time.
The girls strike up an instant friendship, sharing giggles, hot cocoa, and, eventually, the knowledge that they’re far more than two playmates who happened to run into each other in the woods. Nelly meets Marion’s mother — her grandmother as a much younger woman — and talks to Marion about Marion’s upcoming surgery, offering her comfort and understanding. She also tells Marion at least some of what her future holds: motherhood, grief, uncertainty. All the while, Nelly worries that the mother she knows and loves may be beyond her reach, making her time with Marion all the more special to her.
Sciamma elicits powerful performances from the Ganz twins — undoubtedly aided by their real-life bond, but impressive nonetheless. They’re capable of both soulful gravity and endearing childishness. Petite Maman has a brief running time, just over 70 minutes, but every moment in it matters, just as every moment between Nelly and Marion matters, bringing mother and daughter closer together and helping each see what the other is thinking and experiencing. The end result is a moving drama that, like grief itself, will linger in your heart. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Loren King A fairytale, a ghost story, a spare meditation on grief, loss, motherhood and the delicate mysteries of childhood — Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman is all these things adding up to a deeply moving, spellbinding film that evokes tenderness and heartbreak in delving into what children can never know about a parent and what a gift it is to imagine glimpsing that precious unknowable, even for a moment. Read full review.
Marilyn Ferdinand It is sheer genius for director Celine Sciamma, who also wrote the screenplay, to level the playing field by bringing mother and daughter together as peers to talk about the things that really matter to them—young Marion’s fear of an operation she is to undergo in three days’ time and Nelly’s worry that she is the cause of her mother’s melancholy (young Marion reassures her as only the honesty of a child can that “you didn’t invent my sadness.”) Nelly, who confesses to her older mother that she wishes she had given her grandmother a proper good-bye, gets a chance at a do-over, albeit with a younger version. Read full review.
Susan Wloszczyna: 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. Read full review.
Nell Minow: “=Petite Maman is a delicate haiku of a film, an exquisitely crafted story of memory and loss, filmed so intimately that we are drawn into its world, whether it is fantasy or metaphor.
Leslie Combemale Celine Sciamma is the quintessence of female filmmaking. In all her films, she values emotional intelligence, and uses the female lens to examine life and universal truths through stories about women’s experiences and relationships. Her female characters are multidimensional and exist on their own terms, often apart from, or with very little influence from, the men around them. A look here, the touch of a hand there, cooperation in a task together, a verbal exchange where a secret is shared or somehow reveals a character’s fears and hopes, these are her building blocks. With Petite Maman she creates an immersive experience, and one in which most women will see themselves in some way. Read full review.
Sherin Nicole A little girl’s longing for a connection with her parents creates a pathway to the past, through a forest where she meets her mother on equal terms. Petite Maman utilizes a clever concept to delicately dissect the relationships between mothers and daughters. The weight of the storytelling rests on the abilities of two young actresses, Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz, who show us how much better we might understand our mothers and our daughters if we could see eye-to-eye from a similar vantage point. Meanwhile, their playful performances and the fly-on-the-wall directing by Céline Sciamma remind us to cherish the time we have.
Jennifer Merin Celine Sciamma’s enthralling and mysterious family drama Petite Maman is a meditative and loving ghost story unlike any other. Performances by not-quite-tween twin sisters Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz are perfectly nuanced and indelibly haunting. And cinematographer Claire Mathon’s powerfully sensitive up close and wide angle cinematography is to die for. Discover the brilliance and enjoy!
Pam Grady: After the torrid eroticism of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, writer-director Céline Sciamma further demonstrates her mastery with something completely different. Petite Maman is an evocative fairy tale of a little girl missing her mother. After her grandmother dies and her mother leaves her and her father alone in the house her mom grew up in, a disconsolate Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) wanders the woods in back of the house, searching for the place her mother once built a fort. She finds the spot—and another child (Gabriellle Sanz, Joséphine’s twin), also eight years old and named Marion like her mom. What unfolds as the little girls become fast friends is nothing short of enchanted. The children giggle together, play games, perform a play, make pancakes, and share revelations, forming a new bond while reaffirming an old one. At only 72 minutes, Petit Maman is a small film that packs a big emotional wallop.
Sandie Angulo Chen: In Petite Maman, writer-director Celine Sciamma once again delivers a uniquely woman-and-girl-centered drama with a tender script, thoughtful performances, and gorgeous cinematography. Stories about dying mothers and grandmothers can be difficult to watch, but there’s something beautiful and magical about Sciamma’s film. It centers around Nelly (Josephine Sanz), an 8-year-old girl whose beloved grandmother has just died. In the woods behind her late grandmother’s home, Nelly finds and befriends an 8-year-old girl version of her mother Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who is also mourning a loss. The two girls (played by twin actors) form a bond, and despite the magical realism of their time together, the movie is rooted in an authentic exploration of connection, of shared grief, of the special closeness between mothers and daughters.
Liz Whittemore Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz capture the bond between family members in a way we’ve never seen before, thanks to writer-director Celine Sciamma’s captivating and genre-bending screenplay. Petite Maman is a unique exploration of grief, depression, and wish fulfillment. The cinematography is gorgeous, and you cannot escape its impact. This film oozes charm effortlessly. Petite Maman is, by far, one of the most whimsical family dramas I’ve ever witnessed.
Cate Marquis Céline Sciamma’s marvelous French-language Petite Maman is a kind of magical film, in which an 8-year-old girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who has just lost her beloved grandmother and is helping her parents clean out the home where her mother grew up, escapes that emotional task to the nearby woods where she meets meets another girl her age named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, Josephine’s real-life twin sister). Marion is building clubhouse in the woods and the girls quickly become friends but there is something strangely familiar about Marion. As Nelly puzzles things out, a fascinating tale unwinds, a haunting, touching drama that is part supernatural fantasy and part reflection on the power of memory, from the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Title: Petite Maman
Director: Celine Sciamma
Release Date: April 22, 2022
Running Time: 72 minutes
Language: French with English subtitles
Screenwriter: Celine Sciamma
Distribution Company: Neon Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin