Review: ‘Petite Maman,’ starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne

April 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in “Petite Maman” (Photo courtesy of Lilies Films/Neon)

“Petite Maman”

Directed by Céline Sciamma

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in France, the dramatic film “Petite Maman” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 8-year-old girl meets another girl of the same age who is eerily similar to her.

Culture Audience: “Petite Maman” will appeal primarily to people are interested in unique movies about families and time travel.

Nina Meurisse and Joséphine Sanz in “Petite Maman” (Photo courtesy of Lilies Films/Neon)

The very memorable drama “Petite Maman” takes an insightful and endearing look at parent-child relationships and how personalities are formed in childhood. It also depicts the rhetorical question: “What would you do if you met one of your parents as a child but didn’t know it right away?” The results are fascinating, charming and often sentimental without being mawkish.

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, “Petite Maman” clocks in at a brisk 72 minutes, which is really all the time needed for this engaging cinematic story to be told. “Petite Maman” (which takes place in an unnamed city in France) made the rounds at several top film festivals in 2021, including the Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. Sciamma has made a name for herself as a filmmaker who does female-centric movies about authentic personal relationships. “Petite Maman” (which translates to “Little Mother” in English) is Sciamma’s first movie where the central female characters are pre-teen girls.

“Petite Maman” is a movie with a relatively small cast of characters (less than 10 people have speaking lines), because it’s a fairly simple story that’s rich in detailing the meaningful experiences of an 8-year-old girl who meets her mother when her mother was also 8 years old. There’s no elaborate science-fiction explanation for this time-traveling experience. Observant viewers will figure out the mystery fairly early on in the story, but it’s a delight to watch the unwitting girl discover what her mother was like at her own age.

In the beginning of “Petite Maman,” 8-year-old Nelly (played by Joséphine Sanz) is visiting a nursing home where her maternal grandmother, who was a widow, has passed away. Nelly asks her unnamed mother (played by Nina Meurisse) if she can keep a stick that used to be owned by Nelly’s grandmother. Nelly’s mother says yes.

Nelly then accompanies her parents to the house where Nelly’s grandmother used to live. It’s also the childhood home of Nelly’s mother. The house (which is located in a wooded area) is going to be sold, and most of it is already packed up, except for some essential furniture, most of it wrapped up in sheets. The kitchen is the only room in the house that looks like it hasn’t been packed up or wrapped yet in the process of the house getting a new owner.

Nelly’s mother and Nelly’s father (played by Stéphane Varupenne) have stopped by the house for some final moving arrangements. They decide to stay in the house for a few days. Nelly sleeps in the bedroom that her mother had a child. When Nelly’s mother tucks her in before Nelly goes to sleep, she mentions to Nelly that when she was a child, she didn’t like being in the room at night.

It’s soon revealed that although Nelly is a fairly obedient child, she’s more of a “daddy’s girl.” Nelly is more likely to get into disagreements with her mother, who has an unspoken air of sadness and regret about her. Nelly’s parents also don’t like to talk about their childhoods very much. Nelly’s father explains that the only thing they like to discuss about their childhoods is the Christmas presents that they received when they were kids.

But one thing that Nelly knows about her mother’s childhood is that her mother had a special hut that she built in the woods. This hut was her place where she could go when she wanted private time to herself. One of the first things that Nelly asks her mother about when they arrive at the house is: “Mom, where was your hut? Can you show me? I want to make one.”

Nelly’s mother seems too distracted with grief to grant this request. However, one day, Nelly is out walking in the woods when she sees a girl who looks exactly like her making a hut out of tree branches. The girl, whose name is Marion (played by Gabrielle Sanz, the identical twin of Joséphine Sanz), asks Nelly for help in building the hut. Nelly notices that Marion has the same name as Nelly’s mother.

It’s the beginning of a friendship where Nelly develops a deeper understanding of Marion and her childhood. Viewers find out that Marion grew up with a mother who was very overprotective. In her childhood, Marion had an operation to correct a problem that she might have inherited from her mother. Marion’s mother (played by Margot Abascal), who walks with a cane, is shown in a scene where she’s scolding Marion for playing outside because it’s against doctor’s orders.

“Petite Maman” has a plot twist revealed at the end of the movie that is emotionally poignant, especially for people who feel that this story of friendship within a family is relatable on some level. Sciamma’s telling of this story is at times whimsical but always genuinely observant of the nuances in how people relate to each other as children and as adults. The casting of identical twins Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz (who are both very good in their respective roles as Nelly and Marion) is an inspired choice because it makes viewers pay more attention to how to tell these girls apart, in terms of their personalities.

“Petite Maman” also touches on the issue of what friendship can mean between a parent and a child. Parents of underage children often have to show or tell their kids, “I’m your parent, not your friend,” in order to set discipline boundaries. What “Petite Maman” does in a special and creative way is show that every parent’s inner child is never really lost but becomes part of who that person is as a parent and a possible friend.

Neon released “Petite Maman” in select U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on May 6, 2022. The movie was released in several European countries and in South Korea in 2021.

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