TIFF21 REVIEW: Petite maman [2021]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 72 minutes
    Release Date: June 2nd, 2021 (France)
    Studio: Pyramide Distribution / Neon
    Director(s): Céline Sciamma
    Writer(s): Céline Sciamma

We might not see each other again.

It’s difficult grappling with the reality that we can never know when our latest “goodbye” to a loved one might prove the last we’ll ever share with them. The act itself is so commonplace and routine that we find ourselves performing on reflex. The assumption is that it’s really a “so long”—an ellipsis awaiting its next word whenever and wherever it may arrive next. Then the day comes when you realize two dots disappeared while you were away to reveal a period of finality that cannot change back. You wonder how you let yourself take that time for granted. Why you didn’t ensure that every “goodbye” was treated like the last just in case. The reason is simple: we don’t want to believe it will.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) braves it now that her grandmother has passed away. The eight-year-old laments that she didn’t give her a hug the last time they were together and now never will again. It’s a fact of life, though. Love makes us feel so much precisely because it can evaporate in an instant. You can imagine then how her mother (Nina Meurisse) feels. Not only has she lost the woman who raised her, but she’s also about to lose the last connection to her past: her childhood home. This will be the first and last time for Nelly to experience the memories and ghosts hidden in its shadows as her father (Stéphane Varupenne) packs away its belongings and her mother absorbs the weight of its sudden emptiness.

With it comes a second chance. That’s ultimately what writer/director Céline Sciamma provides her characters in Petite maman. It’s through this place that Nelly might see her grandmother again in the time capsule of her belongings while her mother attempts to recall what it was like to live as a child with the sort of dreams one unwittingly leaves by the wayside upon starting a family young. The former doesn’t realize the opportunity she’s about to be afforded as the latter grows too sad to remember what might have been. So when Nelly awakens the next morning in her mother’s old bed, she’s gone. And it’s in her absence that the girl finds herself roaming the forest to discover where her mother built a tree hut long ago.

Lo and behold, it’s there. And next to it is the little girl who made it (Gabrielle Sanz‘s Marion). The resemblance between the two is uncanny whether or not they realize it yet and the house Marion brings Nelly to after getting soaked by rain looks exactly like the one her parents are clearing out. Maybe it’s a dream. Maybe it’s a rift through time and space. Or maybe it’s simply an unexplained event connecting two worlds and two emotionally ravaged souls desperate for a distraction that only a friend could supply. Because while Nelly is still dealing with her grandmother’s death, Marion confronts a serious operation she’s scared to face alone. That they can have fun, cook, and perform a play together keeps their troubles at bay.

The result is a sweet love letter to the people and places we too readily take for granted. Nelly wants to know more about her parents’ lives—more than the “little stories” that never get down to the thoughts and fears they had at her age. But they never let her in to see them. They think they’re protecting her, that she’s too young to have to worry about such things. But they’re really refusing to understand her worth and maturity to know. You can’t blame them for doing it since it demands a vulnerability few adults willingly share with their children, but that’s often what they need to cope. And reminding them that they aren’t alone might just get you stumbling into the realization you aren’t either.

Nelly’s experience is thus like looking behind a curtain. Marion and her mother’s (Margot Abascal) presence provides a unique situation wherein she can reckon with her emotions alongside someone who’s not only willing to meet her on equal footing, but also proves keenly aware of what it is she’s going through. Nelly and Marion find themselves having the conversations Nelly wishes she could have with her mother if the decades of life and struggles hadn’t already closed her off to the possibility. There’s a wonderfully sad and resonate exchange wherein Nelly asks her mom something only for the latter to say, “You always ask questions when it’s time for bed.” The daughter’s response is, “That’s when I see you.” What a sincere yet malice-free punch to the gut.

That’s what happens, though. Parents and children find themselves at arm’s length despite their relationship’s proximity inherently guaranteeing no one should be closer. Their experiences are connected through the bonds of love. Who better to discuss a death in the family than someone else in that family? Nelly and her mother are devastated and yet this generational wall separates them to the point where they’re facing another lost “goodbye.” Because when she wakes up to find her father alone in the house, Nelly can’t help but fear the worst. We know her mom left to escape the pain, but this girl does not. If she were able to tell her daughter what she was going through, Nelly could be the one to walk her back from the edge.

There’s no denying this truth once we see Nelly and Marion become thick as thieves. When they are both made aware of why they look the same (the Sanz twins deliver astoundingly dramatic and infectiously pure performances), they can say everything they need to say without the psychological hang-ups an age disparity like that between Nelly and her mother creates. And through that experience—whether it’s real and thus remembered or not, this eight-year-old child may also know what’s necessary to bridge the gap. Sometimes the adult’s grief is too much to bear alone without realizing it. To therefore find this wise-beyond-her-years kid offering a heartfelt hug could be what he/she needs to come out the other end and say that final “goodbye” anyway. It’s never too late.

courtesy of TIFF

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