Petite Maman

Petite Maman ★★★½

I didn't unexpectedly like Petite Maman as much as I liked Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but I definitely came away feeling like writer-director Céline Sciamma was a gifted filmmaker. While some have advised going in knowing as little as possible, I don't think it's catastrophic to know what you're getting into and I can't really talk about it without, you know, discussing the basic premise, so reader beware. But also I do think it would be a slightly more magical experience to go in knowing nothing and let it all unfold in front of your eyes. So anyway, spoilers, eight-year-old Nelly's grandmother just died and it's very sad as she and her parents go to her grandmother's home—where her mother grew up—to empty it out. One day she goes out into the forest and lo and behold, she meets a girl who looks exactly like her and has the same name as her mother in a movie that's literally called Little Mom. Kudos to the goddamn casting director for finding twins Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz, who are both better actors than Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. I knew better than to wonder why this time-bendy event was occurring and easily embraced the fairytale vibes, but I did struggle to stay engaged through a bit of sleepiness when all that was happening was just two kids hanging out, even if the two kids happened to be mother and daughter. Sciamma just coasts on that playful strangeness for a while, though the presence of Nelly's grandmother—Marion's mother—imbues that playfulness with a hint of sadness. I'd heard the film described as live-action Miyazaki, and that's an apt description for sure, except at least in My Neighbor Totoro I had lovely animation to admire and, well, Totoro and the fuckin' CATBUS to excite me. Without a little extra, the film was a tad too delicate and subtle for me, not explicitly exploring this timey-wimey relationship in a way that I could follow (especially because you have to really pay attention to tell the girls apart). I became more engaged and interested once both girls became aware of what was going on, as it then becomes Marion's story almost as much as Nelly's. It's not just about Nelly finding a new way to connect with her mother but also about Marion trying to process—at the age of EIGHT—the nature of her daughter and the eventual death of her own mother. While Neon fucked up the release of this film even worse than Portrait of a Lady on Fire, they were smart to take it wide over Mother's Day weekend because it's absolutely a lovely multilayered mother-daughter story, exploring not only Nelly's relationship with her mother but Marion's relationship with her mother, and this premise is just a super neat way to show the dual nature of a mother because a mother was also once a child herself. At only 72 minutes, it doesn't even really adhere to a three-act structure, shaped more like a one-act play, but, damn, I wish I liked the whole movie as much as I liked the last ten minutes or so, when Sciamma lets the girls more openly discuss their pasts and their futures, Marion especially wondering about the mother she'll become to this girl she's just befriended. Overall, it's a sweet and pleasant film, but holy shit, the last ten seconds are the best last ten seconds of any film I've seen this year. Prepare thy heart, for it will explode.

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