The innocence of childhood may present an opportunity for magic to happen. The openness of a child can allow for things that we might think impossible. If we allow ourselves to be carried along in that openness and innocence, we may find ourselves enchanted by Petite Maman, from Céline Sciamma.
[Note: It is impossible to talk about the film without a key plot point, that could be considered a spoiler. So, if you want to experience that discovery unhindered, you should come back to this review after watching the film.]
We first meet eight year old Nelly as she goes around the nursing home saying a final goodbye to the friends she’s made there. Nelly’s grandmother has died, so Nelly won’t be coming back. She and her parents now must go to her mother’s country home to clean it out. A short way in, the task is too much for her mother’s grief and she leaves during the night, leaving Nelly and her father with the task.
Nelly remembers her mother telling about a hut she built in the woods when she was Nelly’s age. Nelly goes into the woods and discovers another little girl, Monica, the same age as she, building a hut. When Monica invites her to her house, they end up at Nelly’s grandmother’s house, where Nelly finds her grandmother, thirty years younger. Nelly (and we) quickly realizes that in some way she has met her mother as a child. The two girls share their days and have sleep overs at each other’s homes (the same house with different decors).
Monica’s ninth birthday is coming up, but she is scheduled to have surgery to prevent a condition that her mother (Nelly’s grandmother) suffers from. The night before the surgery, Nelly spends the night at Monica’s house, where she confides what she knows about her mother’s life.
The film is not so much about time travel as it is a magical bending of time to allow the two little girls to find a special, mystical bond—a bond that is more like sisters than mother and daughter. We delight in the ways they share their lives in the way that only children can do. They live in neither past nor future, but in the very present moment.
Nelly knew that her mother often seemed melancholy. She feared that her mother was like that because of her. In this setting, Nelly gets to see a very different picture of her mother, and begins to know that the two are bonded by a love that has no real parallel.
Sciamma (Tomboy, Water Lilies) is not new to coming-of-age stories. She enters into the children’s lives to find the innocence and wonder we often lose as adults. The girls find joy in building a hut, going on the lake, making pancakes—the carefree life of childhood. The parents in the story have other things on their minds. Nelly’s mother is grieving and has to deal with the overwhelming work of cleaning out a house. Monica’s mother worries about her daughter’s health as she faces an operation.
Sciamma keeps the story focused through the eyes of the girl. As she shares her days with her “little mama”, she begins to understand a bit more about the mother she has known. And she learns that they are connected in an amazing way.
Of course, I watch the film as an adult—filled with worries about many things. But in the brief (72 minute) time of entering Nelly’s life, I get to remember a little of the magic of that time. And perhaps the adult Monica will get that chance to remember as well.
Based on my viewing of this film at AFI Fest, I included it in my Darrel’s Dozen for last year.
Petite Maman is showing in select theaters.
Photos courtesy of Neon.