Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) sits in the backseat of her mother’s car outside of the nursing home where her beloved grandmother has just died, and watches through the window as her young parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) share a tender embrace. The half-quizzical look on Nelly’s face suggests that she hasn’t seen them hug in a while — that perhaps this moment is doubly charged. She wonders what they mean to each other, and what it feels like to lose someone forever, and whether her mother ever sat alone in a car on a gray fall afternoon and watched as her mother was consoled over her mother’s death. Nelly understands that her mom didn’t become 31 without being eight along the way, but why is that so hard to imagine? It’s like looking at a bird and trying to picture when it was a dinosaur.
Nelly doesn’t breathe a word of this, but she doesn’t have to; we’ve only known the girl for a few short minutes, and yet the screen between us has already melted away as if we’re sharing in her experience first-hand. This is at least part of what Céline Sciamma does better than just about every other writer-director working today. Her characters open like pores soaked in hot water, and the hyper-real worlds around them — from the apartment complexes of contemporary Paris in “Girlhood” to the ravishing coast of 18th century Brittany in her masterpiece “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — reveal themselves with such an acute sense of discovery that even the most everyday moments assume a life-altering charge.
That’s never been more palpable than it is in Sciamma’s jewel-like “Petite Maman,” which finds the filmmaker literally returning to her roots for another exquisite coming-of-age story about a young girl on the precipice of some new self-understanding. Or would it be more accurate to call it a negation-of-age story? It’s true that Nelly grows up over the course of the movie, but — as Sciamma’s title suggests — the high-concept plot hinges more on Nelly’s mother getting smaller. Turning back into a dinosaur, so to speak.
Nelly’s family returns to her late grandmother’s rustic country house in order to spend a few days getting things sorted, but when the wide-eyed kid wakes up the next morning she finds that her mom has gone AWOL. Later that afternoon, near the tree fort that her mom built as a child, Nelly finds an eight-year-girl who looks just like her, only with a different coat and a somewhat bristlier countenance. It’s strange that Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) shares the same name as Nelly’s mother, even stranger that she lives in a still- furnished version of Nelly’s grandmother’s house, and downright surreal that Nelly’s grandmother (the fortysomething Margot Abascal) is still living there, too. She’s making soup for lunch.
It’s a premise that seems equally ripe for an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or a live-action Disney movie, but Sciamma opts for a more spectral tone, one so rooted in the matter-of-factness of childhood fantasy that you half-expect Nelly and Marion to stumble across a catbus station when it starts raining. The film’s press notes cite Miyazaki as a major inspiration, with the “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away” vibes growing especially pronounced over the course of a story that blurs the soft borders between real and invented worlds. (Sciamma’s own “Tomboy” is relevant as well, since it marks the last time she worked with actors close to this age.)
The result is at once both the most ordinary and most enchanted thing that Sciamma has made so far, a wise and delicate wisp of a movie that recreates the same time-collapsing effect as the tree fort wormhole that allows Nelly and her mom to reach across the years and flatten the rift that’s always kept them on opposite sides of the woods. It’s a rift that’s measured the exact same length since Nelly was born, and won’t begin to close until Marion dies. Kids understand that gap from an early age, while those who go on to become parents one day tend to discover that it looks distressingly similar from the other side.
And so “Petite Maman,” though accessible to children, isn’t their fantasy alone. It belongs to anyone who’s ever felt a certain distance from the people they love most in the world; who knows that secrets aren’t just the things we keep from each other, but also the things we never find the language to share.
Dreamed up during quarantine, limited to a small clutch of studio sets and autumnal exteriors (including a the same woods in which Sciamma played as a child), and running just 72 minutes, “Petite Maman” is a far cry from the kind of blank check that we’ve been conditioned to expect from someone hot off a popular favorite like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and viewers expecting to have the wind knocked out of them by the same kind of emotional gut-punch might be disappointed by a story that peaks with two slaphappy kids making pancakes.
But Sciamma has always been able to squeeze blood from a stone, and her latest film (shot by “Portrait” cinematographer Claire Mathon) is crafted with such invisible resourcefulness and emotional poignancy that it never feels the least bit compromised. One early car shot, in which Nelly’s hands pop in and out of view as she feeds her mother crackers from the backseat, mines the kind of non-moment that would be cut from most films into an unforgettable portrait of the space that separates even the most loving of parents and children — a space they can reach across from time to time but never share completely.
Sciamma’s characteristically understated approach elides all of the obvious dramatic beats. Nelly’s adventure isn’t prompted by some kind of blow-out fight with her mom, but rather a tender conversation in which the parent says “You always ask questions at bedtime,” and the child replies with the sort of velvet hammer that kids don’t even realize they’re swinging: “That’s when I see you.”
If several other movies have played in this sandbox before (Sciamma cites the Judge Reinhold/Fred Savage opus “Vice Versa” as one particularly smart inspiration), “Petit Maman” separates itself from the pack by ditching the usual body-swap tropes in favor of putting its characters on equal footing. The scenes between Nelly and young Marion unfold with the low-key naturalness of two sisters trying to pass the time; both of the Sanz siblings (twins?) do a perfect job of parlaying Sciamma’s reactive gaze, and they start having fun with it at the precise moment when the movie around them feels like it’s about to suffocate on the wistful seriousness of its big ideas.
While never scary by any stretch, “Petite Maman” doesn’t resist the specter of death or deny the haunted nature of its ghostly premise; Sciamma maintains an enduring fascination with supernatural manifestations of regret, and there are details here (the soft focus in one shot, the menacing design of Marion’s tree fort in another) that suggest material for a killer horror movie one day. There’s even the looming threat of an ominous medical operation of some kind. But these aren’t the borrowed affectations of a movie bored of its own genre. Instead, they’re a crucial element of the bridge that connects Nelly with her mother, as Sciamma insists that you can’t really know someone until you understand what frightens them most.
It’s not anyone’s fault that our relationships ossify into these roles, it’s just the fact of how families come to hear each other. We try to find a certain harmony, but kids follow their parents like the rounds of a song. “You don’t forget,” one generation of Sciamma’s characters says to another, “you just don’t listen.” But that’s the miracle of this movie: For 72 minutes, everyone can hear each other as clearly as if they were speaking to themselves. If only it could last forever.
“Petite Maman” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Berlinale. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.