Candid Cinema

TIFF ’21: ‘Petite Maman’ Review

By: Amanda Guarragi

From French auteur Celine Sciamma, comes a beautiful intergenerational story about grief, love, and the journey of life. After her grandmother dies, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is taken to her mother’s childhood home. While her parents go about cleaning out the house, Nelly explores the surrounding woods. She encounters Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), a girl exactly Nelly’s age and to whom she bears a striking resemblance. Sciamma’s direction and storytelling is layered through Nelly’s grief, and her loss of innocence, through the false perception enforced by her parents. When a child loses someone dear to them, at such a young age, it can affect them differently. Sciamma structures a narrative that is so effortlessly heartwarming and will resonate with everyone.

The script is straightforward and Sciamma uses a simplistic approach when structuring this story. You become connected to little Nelly, as she is the central focus of this film. The performance from Sanz is absolute perfection and she carries the film on her shoulders. In the first five minutes, Nelly’s perception of life and death, is shattered. Even saying goodbye has been tainted for her. The death of her grandmother has a lasting affect, right from the beginning of the film because of how Sciamma set-up the goodbye. When is the last time you will say goodbye to a loved one? Was the goodbye, good enough? We will never know, and that conversation she has with her mother, was the breaking point.

There are subtle pieces of dialogue that will help the viewer make certain connections in the middle of the story. This could very well be one of the most emotional and well-thought out narratives about grief I have seen in a while. What Sciamma does is project Nelly’s grieving process into Marion. She doesn’t quite understand what her mother is going through and is somehow questioning her life. At the ripe age of eight, she is struggling to understand the capacity of her mental state and that of her mother’s. Sciamma dives into the mind of an eight-year-old in a very complex and emotional way.

Petite Maman is a beautiful film that is thought-provoking and heartwarming. The story is well-written and naturally unfolds to reveal how perceptive children can be. They can sense something is wrong without it being said. They question if it’s their fault, even when the anger, or grief, or sadness, has nothing to do with them. It is such an in-depth look into the mind of a child and Sciamma balances comedic moments with emotional ones quite well. Little Nelly will have you wrapped around her finger by the end of this and you will truly leave completely fulfilled.

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