Review: Mothers, daughters and magic in ‘Petite Maman’

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This image released by Neon shows Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in a scene from “Petit Maman.” (Neon via AP)

Céline Sciamma’s ” Petite Maman ” couldn’t be more different in scope and scale from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” There are no castles, or corsets or waves crashing up against craggy cliffs. There is no sex or lust or desire. Yet emotionally, the quiet, restrained and exceptionally tender “Petite Maman” is on equal footing. And from one angle, they’re both ultimately about goodbyes.

Women and girlhood are also at the heart of this latest endeavor, which runs a slim 72 minutes. But instead of a rapturous relationship, the lens here is the whimsical notion of what it might be like for an 8-year-old to spend time with her mother at age 8.

There are so many traps and pitfalls when it comes to depicting young girlhood. Movies can overromanticize, infantilize or instill incongruously adult wisdom in young characters. Sweetness becomes saccharine and nostalgia a crutch. But Sciamma is able to bring to life essential truths of what it is like to be that strange age and the sometimes frightening, sometimes wonderful vastness of a limitless imagination. And she even does it without a background score to manipulate our tear ducts.

Her heroine here is Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), who has just lost her beloved grandmother. We meet her in the nursing home where she and her mother Marion (Nina Meurisse) are collecting her things. Nelly, who like many 8-year-old girls is a bit of an old soul, methodically and respectfully goes from room to room to bid farewell to the fellow residents. Marion meanwhile is distracted by grief and the daunting check list that follows the death of a parent, especially when that death was not exactly a surprise but not entirely expected either. She’d been ailing but not enough for anyone to know to say their final goodbyes. It’s this that haunts Nelly, and her mother is not quite succeeding at convincing her otherwise on their long drive to the grandmother’s country home, where more clean-up and clear out awaits.

Marion and Nelly arrive quite late to her childhood home, as does Nelly’s father (Stéphane Varupenne). They talk about the scary shadows that still come through the window in Marion’s old room and fall asleep together on the couch. But in the morning, Marion is gone. It was just too much for her to stay. It’s in this void that Nelly ventures into the woods, in search of the fort her mother made when she was her age that she’d heard so much about. There she finds a young girl (Gabrielle Sanz) that looks just like her and learns that her name is Marion, too. Nelly becomes fast friends with her “small mother” and though she understands what’s happening, she doesn’t reveal it to Marion for quite some time.

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz are identical twins and inspired casting. Not only are they both naturals in front of the camera, but their real life bond and similarities add a complex blend of warmth and eeriness to the minimalistic film. It’s not an impossibility that Marion was once a spitting image of Nelly, but it also lends to the idea that this is all in the imagination of Nelly, who wants nothing more than to know her mother better — her fears, her dreams, her joy and her sadness. This is the only way she can think to do it.

“Petite Maman” may be short and stripped down, but its layers are many and I imagine it’s a film that will be more rewarding on subsequent viewings. It’s easily one of the best ever made about mothers and daughters.

It is a tall order to follow up a rapturously received period romance like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” Sciamma was not only up to the task but is also clearly cementing her status as one of the most essential and exciting filmmakers working today.

“Petite Maman,” a Neon release in theaters Friday, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some thematic elements and brief smoking.” Running time: 72 minutes. Four stars out of four.

MPAA Definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested.

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

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