THREE STARS In the countryside, a young girl makes friends with a girl building a treehouse near her home. Curiously she has the same name as her mother. DRAMA FRANCE French Language #PETITEMAMAN
Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz
Technically a feature, this 72 minute movie is every bit the cinematic equivalent of a short story: refined in concept, tight in execution, rarified themes. It’s an elegant film that has charmed festivals the world over for many reasons, notably the two very likeable youngsters in the lead roles.
Eight year old Nelly’s grandmother has just died. She’s sad yet practical about the death. Her job now is to console her mother together they travel to the French countryside to help clear out the family home. Her dad’s there too, and it’s clear that Nelly’s parents no longer get along. There’s nothing angry or hysterical about their behaviour, it could be a temporary thing, or not. Their detachment helps set the tone for a subdued study about managing loss and separation.
Free to wander the nearby woods, Nelly stumbles upon a young girl building a treehouse. It’s exactly like the one her own mother had built when she was their age, in the same forest. Coincidence? Invited back to the girl’s home Nelly quickly realises that it is exactly like her Grandmother’s and that the young girl - Marion - shares her mother’s name. More coincidence, or has she slipped back in time?
Well, yes as it turns out. At peace with the preposterous circumstances (hysteria has no place in this film), and quietly delighted by the prospect of having someone to play with, the two girls hang out in the hut, act in their own made-up stories and make pancakes. Nelly gets more time with her grandmother and Marion meets her future husband, albeit as an eight year old. It’s cute, compelling and joyful in an old-fashioned, respectful way.
Instead of racing toward time-slip horror stories like TV’s DARK, writer/director Céline Sciamma use the scenario to ponder life and loss through the easy-going eyes of the girls (siblings Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz). Fear has no place here and the intimate tone is effective, up to a point. The sparseness of both the script and the production is attractive (the autumnal setting is magical), but there’s an ephemerality that ultimately leaves audiences with little to grasp. Short stories typically come to a very precise moment whereas PETITE MAMAN does quite the opposite.
This looseness lets the story slip away like Nelly’s grandmother, leaving us to wonder what she and those around her truly think about grief and loss and separation. While Sciamma invites us to make our own conclusions, I for one would like something more definitive.