A little girl discovers grief and beauty in this fantastic fairytale

Twins Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz star in Petite Maman.

Moviegoer: Petite Maman

By Diana Beechener

At the tender age of 8, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz in her debut) loses her beloved grandmother to a prolonged illness. Stricken with the idea that she didn’t tell her grandmother goodbye, Nelly is also frightened by her mother’s reaction to the death.

         Though she’s trying to be strong for her daughter, Nelly’s mom is barely holding it together. When the family returns to her childhood home to clean out the house, Nelly’s mom flees, leaving Nelly and her dad to sort out the life that once inhabited the walls. Feeling lost, missing her grandmother, and afraid for her mom, Nelly decides to take to the woods. Her mother told stories about her happy childhood building forts and playing in the clearings under the trees.

         While exploring, Nelly comes across Marion (Gabrielle Sanz in her debut), who is busy making a fort. Both girls are lonely and facing overwhelming home situations. They bond easily as they construct a fort of branches and brush. But as the two help each other navigate adult concepts like loss and depression, Nelly begins to realize her friend might be more special than she first assumed.

         And that’s all the plot you should know before checking out one of the best films of the year.

         At just over an hour Petite Maman accomplishes more in its short running time than most films ever dream of. Writer/director Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) picks at the delicate concepts of parenting, trauma, and what we pass on to our children without veering into lectures or snobbery. This is a simple fairytale that is deeply relatable and utterly moving. Sciamma manages to both embody the fear of a young child who sees their parent breaking down, and the wonder of a child who sees magic in the every day. And like most fairytales, this film is powerful because its message will reverberate in the minds of the viewers for years to come.

         Part of the magic of Petite Maman is the beautiful camera work by cinematographer Claire Mathon (Spencer). Mathon gives the film the palette of a children’s book, golden frames with pops of red and blue. The movie itself has the feel of a weathered, familiar tale, of gently yellowed pages that contain a simple, sweet story.

         At the heart of that story are the brilliant performances by Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz. The twins are new to acting but offer subtle, moving performances. Both never seem older than their years or unrelatable, neither suffer from the “precocious child syndrome” that infects so many movies featuring kids. Joséphine’s Nelly understands that there’s deep pain in her mother, and fears that nothing can be done to help her. This pain and doubt is something she doesn’t quite understand, which only increases her fear. Gabrielle’s Marion is also trying to comprehend mortality, as she faces a major crisis in her own family. Though neither girl knows what to do, they offer each other friendship and find their way through frightening emotions.

         Though Petite Maman is easily one of the most beautiful and stunningly acted films of the year, it’s running time may make viewers pause. Clocking in at 73 minutes, the film is barely a feature film as defined by most film festivals. While Mathon crafts some beautiful frames in the film, Petite Maman translates well to the small screen. If you’re not comfortable venturing into D.C. or Baltimore to see this film, fear not – Neon, the film’s distributor, has been releasing its slate of independent gems on Hulu a few weeks after their theatrical run (Sidenote for the brave viewers: the infamous Titane is now playing on Hulu if you’d like a wild ride into Palme d’Or cinema).

         Petite Maman is a short film, but an exceptionally beautiful one that looks at the delicate relationships we build and strengthen as we grow. Watch this one with your mom, and be sure to have a few tissues on hand.

Petite Maman is playing in select theaters, and will be streaming in late May or June.

Great Drama * PG * 73 mins.