Synopsis: A little girl goes back and forth from the present to the past, where she visits her mother at the same age. (Streaming on Amazon Prime as of July 7, 2022)
Children in television and movies have had somewhat of a raw deal. They are either precocious brats, like ‘Michelle’ as played by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen on Full House or the Sprouse twins in The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. Or tragedies befall the kids, such as Haley Joel Osment’s character, Cole, who sees dead people in The Sixth Sense. Or what about Kirsten Dunst’s tragic character in Interview with the Vampire? She is stuck for ages with Tom Cruise as her father figure. Oh, and she’s a miserable vampire-girl.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman is a refreshing break from the material that kids often play in Hollywood. The acting from the twin sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz (as Nelly and Marion) is naturalistic. And they are not saddled with a stupid Disney-esque set-up where they run a roller rink or something.
Thankfully, when we first meet eight-year-old Nelly, she is not in danger, although she is sad. Nelly is with her parents at her grandmother’s nursing home. Sadly, her grandma has recently passed and the family is gathering the last of her possessions from her room.
Thankfully, unlike in a sitcom, the girl isn’t up to any jerky hijinks, but remains subdued, quietly visiting some other residents in the hall. The mom is clearly grieving, while the dad offers quiet support. Nelly is watchful, looking to her parents to figure out how to behave in light of their loss. They leave the nursing home and drive what seems to be a short ways to the grandmother’s old house which is only sparsely furnished at this point.
The parents plan on spending a few days clearing out what is left of the house before returning home. At night, she and her mom look through children’s books and peruse the old dollhouse. I thought things might take a supernatural turn, but, fortunately, the dollhouse did not seem haunted; none of the miniature furniture was levitating and none of the dolls were gathered round a little pentagram.
The next morning Nelly’s dad prepares breakfast and it looks like he’s given Nelly a cereal bowl full of black olives and milk — but maybe it is some sort of chocolate truffle cereal. After brekkie, there isn’t much to keep the child occupied indoors so she heads outside. She plays for a while with a paddleboard, which kills about two minutes. She decides to head into the nearby woods to locate a little wooden hut her mom had made as a child. Soon, she spies a girl her own age in the clearing who is dragging big branches over to a hut she is constructing. At first I suspected that she was a ghost-girl.
The perhaps ghost-girl sees Nelly and asks her to help. It’s very curious because the girls look so much alike. But this is the movies –where people can behave oddly– so neither girl exclaims, Hey! You look just like me! After some work, they introduce themselves. The new girl is Marion. This is curious too, because that is Nelly’s mom’s name. Marion asks if she wants to stop by her house. She does…
Mon Dieu! The house is her grandma’s house, but this must be back in time because everything looks new in the house and there is Marion’s mom bustling around. Qu-est-ce que c’est? Nelly finally behaves like a normal kid, gets spooked and rushes off, calling Au revoir!
I like how the movie did not use a time/place travel portal like a car (Back to the Future) or a piece of furniture (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Instead, whenever Nelly leaves her grandma’s house, she just walks through the woods and voila! the girl re-enters her own time. I don’t know, maybe she has to run twice around a tree and hop once like a frog, to effectuate this change. You have to use your imagination.
Nelly quickly recovers herself and has a quiet, normal night at the house with her parents. It seems she decides to just sit on her mind-blowing experience until she can decide if it was real, before she says anything to her preoccupied parents.
When she awakens the next day, her dad tells her that the mom has gone back to their own place and they will join her soon. We understand that the mom was too overwhelmed to stay and go through her mother’s things, but Nelly doesn’t know that. What’s a kid to do? Well, this kid heads back to the woods.
Nelly and Marion continue construction of the wood hut and while away time at Marion’s home in the past, making pancakes–excuse me, crêpes– and in a Wes Andersonian twist, they start working on a play. Marion says she wants to be an actress. Marion is also the primary screenwriter, so she naturally gives herself the juiciest parts. Marion is a countess; her husband is an American Coca-Cola executive. Nelly will play an investigator of a murder who falls in love with the countess. The girls seem to have an understanding that adulting, while mysterious, involves a lot of heavy lifting.
I don’t know if this is a Gallic thing, but during the few days that Nelly is at her grandma’s old house, her dad is very laissez faire in his parenting. For example, after she returns from an entire day in the woods and tells her dad that she’s made a friend and can she stay overnight, he’s like Oui. No meeting the parents or calling them on the phone to be sure some maniac doesn’t live there. And when Nelly is at grandma/Marion’s house in the past, the mom is doing the crossword in the other room while the girls are in the kitchen cooking. They flick on the stovetop as if they’ve been brûléeing on their own since kindergarten. And another time, they take a rubber dinghy onto a lake and do not wear life jackets as they paddle out to the middle of the lake–Mon Dieu!
Well, I confess I wasn’t too worried because I knew that the point of the movie was for the girl to make some peace with grandmere’s passing, so I figured that the filmmaker wouldn’t end with some angry swans tipping their dinghy or the oven blowing up. Thankfully, the story is a gentle fantasy and not about some grieving girl having a break from reality…or, even worse, the girls find themselves as stars on a Disney show where they play real estate magnates, ultimately leading to the nightmare of becoming dissolute teen celebs living in Los Angeles. Quelle horreur!
Movie Loon Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: A meditation on loss with an intimate feel and sensitive characterization of childhood and family.
Humor Highlight: The Wes Anderson-like play that the girls write and star in.