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'Petite Maman' is the best — and most surreal — family movie you'll see in a while

Twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz are 8-year-old playmates in <em>Petite Maman</em>.
Lilies Films
Twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz are 8-year-old playmates in <em>Petite Maman</em>.

The writer and director Céline Sciamma makes beautiful movies about girls and young women navigating the complexities of gender and sexual identity. You can tell as much from their titles: Tomboy, Girlhood, Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Her wonderful new film, Petite Maman, is no less focused on the inner lives of its female characters. But it's also something of a departure: This is Sciamma's first work to earn a PG rating, and it's both the best family movie and the best movie about a family that I've seen in some time.

It tells the gently surreal story of Nelly, an 8-year-old girl played by the remarkable young Joséphine Sanz, who has long brown hair and a sharp, perceptive gaze. Nelly's just lost her maternal grandmother after a long illness. Now, she watches as her parents go about the solemn task of packing up Grandma's house — the very house where Nelly's mother, Marion, grew up years earlier. To pass the time, Nelly plays in the woods surrounding the house. It's there that she meets another 8-year-old girl, who also happens to be named Marion. She's played by Gabrielle Sanz, Joséphine's identical twin sister.

This eerie encounter naturally raises a lot of questions: Who is Marion, and why does she look so much like Nelly? Is this forest the backdrop for a modern-day fairy tale, or have we slipped through a hole in the space-time continuum? Sciamma is in no hurry to provide the answers. The title Petite Maman — which translates literally as "Little Mom" — provides a bit of a clue. But one of the pleasures of this movie is the way it casually introduces a series of strange events as if there were nothing strange about them at all.

At times the movie feels like a live-action version of Hayao Miyazaki's anime fantasies like Ponyo or My Neighbor Totoro: full of childlike wonderment, but also very matter-of-fact in its approach to magic. Rather than being puzzled by the situation, Nelly and Marion simply accept it and become fast friends. You accept it, too, mainly because the Sanz sisters have such a sweet and funny rapport onscreen.

Sciamma's camera follows the girls as they run around the woods, gathering leaves and branches to build a hut. Eventually Marion invites Nelly over to her house, which looks an awful lot like Nelly's grandmother's house. There, the girls giggle as they cook up a messy pancake breakfast and act out a hilariously elaborate murder mystery. Few recent movies have so effortlessly captured the joy and creativity of children at play.

Petite Maman itself plays a kind of game with the audience, and you figure out the rules as you watch. You learn to tell the girls apart based on slight differences in hairstyle and the colors that they wear. You also get to know a few of the adult characters hovering on the periphery: At one point, Nelly introduces her father to her new best friend, and if he thinks there's anything weird about this, he doesn't show it. Meanwhile, Nelly's mother — the older Marion — has temporarily left the house, needing some time to herself to grieve her mother's death.

And without a hint of didacticism, Petite Maman reveals itself as very much a movie about grief, about how a child learns to cope with sudden loss and inevitable change. It's also about how hard it is to really know who your parents were before they became your parents. But in this movie, Nelly gets the rare chance to see or perhaps imagine her mother as the sweet, sensitive, independent-minded young girl she used to be.

Although Petite Maman is decidedly different from Sciamma's art-house touchstone Portrait of a Lady on Fire, they're structured in similar ways: In both films, two female characters are granted a brief, even utopian retreat from the outside world and something mysterious and beautiful transpires. If that's not enough of an enticement, you should know that Petite Maman runs a tight 72 minutes and achieves an emotional depth that eludes many movies twice its length. It's funny, sad, full of enchanting possibilities and over far too soon — sort of like childhood itself.

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