Celine Sciamma’s latest French drama film, “Petite Maman,” takes a departure from the director’s thematic style and focuses on matters of childhood and the effect of loneliness on a young child. With a very unusual plot and narrative, “Petite Maman,” literally translating to little mama, is about young eight-year-old Nelly, who believes she has met her own mother, but as another eight-year-old, while playing around in a forest. However strange and cryptic the plot might be, the cinematography and execution in the film are rather plain, simple but effective, and overall, the film deserves a watch.
The film begins with Nelly and her mother gathering her grandmother’s things from her old-age home after the latter has passed away. Nelly is friendly with the other residents there. She solves crossword puzzles with them and also makes sure to bid everyone goodbye before leaving. Along with her parents, Nelly goes to her grandmother’s house to move things from there. After spending the night, Nelly gradually tries to get more acquainted with the house and its backyard, which leads into a forest. She knows that her mother would also explore the woods in her childhood. She had even built a small hut with sticks that Nelly wants to see but is unable to as her mother is too busy to take her there. That night, she confesses to her mother about her sadness, saying that she would have said a heartier goodbye, with a hug, to her grandmother had she known it would be the last time. The next morning, her father tells her that her mother has gone away to do some work, and the two stay in the house for the next few days. Nelly finds a paddle ball game in the closet and delights in going out into the backyard to play with it. But as the elastic breaks, she has to go deeper into the woods in search of the ball, and here she sees a young girl of her own age gathering tree branches. Nelly goes to help her and finds out that she is building a hut with branches in the middle of the forest. The girl, who introduces herself as Marion, takes Nelly to her house when it starts raining, and the two quickly become friends. While Marion sets aside her wet clothes and arranges a bowl of cereal for her, Nelly notices that her house looks exactly like her grandmother’s. She is scared to stumble upon another woman resting in one of the rooms, and quickly runs back to her house. Now she realizes that both the houses look identical from the outside. Despite having a hint of what might be going on, Nelly once again goes back to the woods the next day in search of Marion, her only friend.
The central theme of “Petite Maman” is the loneliness that young children often experience during their growing years, especially in these modern times. Nelly is a young girl with no friends of her own. The only people who have time for her in life are the old women who involve her in their crossword puzzles. It is not that Nelly’s mother has abandoned her, but she is unable to spend much time with her for whatever reason. When she complains that Nelly asks too many questions before going to sleep, the girl replies that it is because she gets to spend some considerable time with her mother only during bedtime. This has an effect on Nelly too. By now, she has learnt to deal with situations better than any eight-year-old. In fact, she acts and talks almost like an adult throughout the film. She is delighted to know that the paddle ball game can be played alone and does not require a second company. Marion, too, is like that. The scene with her managing the kitchen and serving cereal to Nelly almost looks unreal at first, because the two girls act exactly like adults would. This continues even during their games, through which the two get to know more about each other and their dreams.
The film can also be thought of as indirectly talking about modern parenthood, especially the mother, who has a hard time trying to switch between the roles of a mother and an individual, and the father, who is absent even though he is physically present. Where “Petite Maman” succeeds is in successfully creating a mixture of emotions: it feels good to see young Nelly make new friends, both young and old, but the twisted and impossibly convoluted way in which she is able to do so in the narrative also creates a sense of sympathy towards her; a sorrowful curtain hangs that is only lifted at the very end with a heartwarming scene.
While Petite Maman’s narrative follows the complexities of its plot, the film’s cinematic aesthetics are more aligned with the innocence and simplicity of childhood. The overall use of the camera, both in movement and frames, light, and sound, has an air of subtlety but effectiveness about it. Josephine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz, as the two young girls, are great to watch. There can be no denying that, despite moving away from her usual thematic style, Celine Sciamma’s beautiful ability to make one think through her work remains intact in “Petite Maman.”
“Petite Maman” is a 2021 Drama film directed by Céline Sciamma.