By Lindsey Bahr | Associated Press
Celine Sciamma’s ‘Petite Maman’ couldn’t be more different in scope and scale than ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’. There are no castles, corsets or waves crashing against steep cliffs. There is no sex, lust or desire. Yet emotionally, the calm, restrained and exceptionally tender “Little Mama” is on equal footing. And from a certain point of view, they are both talking about goodbyes.
Women and girls are also at the heart of this last attempt, which lasts 72 minutes. But instead of a delightful relationship, the focus here is the whimsical notion of what it might be like for an 8-year-old to spend time with his mother at 8.
There are so many pitfalls and pitfalls when it comes to portraying the young girl. Movies can over-romanticize, infantilize, or infuse incongruous adult wisdom into young characters. Sweetness becomes saccharine and nostalgia a crutch. But Sciamma is able to bring to life the core truths of what it’s like to be this strange age and the sometimes frightening, sometimes wonderful vastness of boundless imagination. And she does it even without a background score to manipulate our tear ducts.
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Her heroine here is Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who has just lost her beloved grandmother. We meet her at the nursing home where she and her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), pick up her things. Nelly, who like many 8-year-old girls is a bit old, goes methodically and respectfully from room to room to say goodbye to the other boarders. Meanwhile, Marion is distracted by grief and the daunting checklist that follows the death of a relative, especially when that death wasn’t exactly a surprise but not entirely expected either. She had been sick but not enough for anyone to know to say her final goodbyes. This is what haunts Nelly, and her mother can’t quite convince her otherwise on their long drive to the grandmother’s country house, where more cleaning and clearing awaits. .
Marion and Nelly arrive quite late in her childhood home, as does Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne). They talk about the spooky shadows that still cross the window of Marion’s old bedroom and fall asleep together on the sofa. But in the morning, Marion left. It was too much for her to stay. It is in this void that Nelly ventures into the woods, in search of the fort built by her mother at her age and of which she had heard so much. There she finds a young girl (Gabrielle Sanz) who looks like her and learns that her name is also Marion. Nelly quickly befriends her “little mother” and although she understands what is going on, she does not reveal it to Marion for some time.
Josephine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz are identical twins and an inspired cast. Not only do they both look natural on camera, but their bond and real-life similarities add a complex mix of warmth and weirdness to the minimalist film. It’s not an impossibility that Marion was once the spitting image of Nelly, but it also gives the idea that it’s all in the imagination of Nelly, who wants nothing more than to get to know her mother better – her fears, dreams, joy and sadness. It’s the only way she can think of to do it.
“Little Mum” may be short and stripped down, but it has many layers, and I imagine it’s a film that will be more rewarding on later viewings. This is easily one of the best ever on mothers and daughters.
It’s a tall order to keep up with an enthusiastically received period romance like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Sciamma was not only up to the task, but also clearly solidifies his status as one of the most essential and exciting filmmakers working today.
What “Little mom” • Four stars out of four • Duration 1:12 • Evaluation PG for some thematic elements and brief smoking