TIFF21 Capsule Review: “Petite Maman” is An Imaginative, Emotional, Innocent Drama About Childlike Wonder

etite Maman, written and directed by Sciamma, tells an extraordinary story. The film’s imaginative viewpoint and truths hidden between the lines all resurface at the film’s emotional conclusion.

Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz in “Petite Maman” / Neon.

We’ve all felt a pull towards our heritage, our family’s past, especially as children. We want to know what our parents were like when they were our age. In their spare time, what did they enjoy doing? Petite Maman is about all of this, but it’s so much more. Céline Sciamma’s latest drama film is an elaborative, often emotional film that beautifully depicts a mother-daughter relationship, family ties, and the magic of childlike wonder.

After 8-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) loses her grandmother, whom she adored, the little girl assists her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) in cleaning her mother’s childhood home located near the forest. Shortly after, Nelly meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) as she explores the surrounding area. Struggling to accept her grandmother’s death, Nelly helps the newly-met friend build a hut in the middle of the forest. The girls grow closer to each other over time, sharing many secrets that connect them in an unusual, beautiful way. 

sJoséphine Sanz and Nina Meurisse in “Petite Maman” / Neon.

Petite Maman begins quietly, nostalgically, and subtly, laced with sadness, departure, and grief. Because of personal reasons, the first act hits extremely close to home. My wound from losing my grandmother not long ago hasn’t healed yet. As a result, watching Sciamma’s latest work feels extremely relatable. Especially when Nelly tells her mother, “I didn’t say goodbye to her. The last goodbye wasn’t good. Because I didn’t know”. The similarities don’t end with that. In addition, as a young girl, I lived very close to the forest. I spent time exploring various paths, just as Nelly, and discovering many hiding spots.

Although initially very personal and heartbreaking, the film has a rather innocent tone as told from the perspectives of Nelly and Marion. Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz are at the heart of the film, stealing the spotlight from every other supporting character. The young actresses are thoroughly endearing and sweet. Their characters truly embody the childlike wonder and curiosity that we, as adults, often lose as we get older.

Petite Maman, written and directed by Sciamma, tells an extraordinary story. The film’s imaginative viewpoint and truths hidden between the lines all resurface at the film’s emotional conclusion.

The film is an excellent choice to kick off the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s subtle but powerful. It’s both innocent and heartbreaking. It will elicit reflection afterward and linger in our minds as we go about our day.

Grade: 10 out of 10.

Author: Zofia Wijaszka

I am a Los-Angeles based film and television critic with bachelor's degree in Journalism and Social Communication with Creative Writing. I am a staff writer for First Showing, a contributing writer for AwardsWatch as well as a freelance writer for Nerdist, Film Inquiry, In Their Own League, and more. I was published at The Mary Sue, Film Threat, Reel Honey, and Polish film portals. I love the "Scream" movies, "Carol", "American Horror Story", "Schitt's Creek," and "The Haunting of Bly Manor" - pick one of these and I won't shut up about it for the next five hours. Twitter – @thefilmnerdette

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