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Petite Maman re-imagines time-travel stories in the gentlest way

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a sensitive take on science fiction

Two girls in a forest with their backs to the camera, hugging each other and looking at a leaf-covered tree shelter they built in Petite Maman Photo: Neon

Movies have taught us that time travel is dangerous. Even if you aren’t being pursued across epochs by homicidal cyborgs or futuristic hitmen, there’s the chance that you might rip open the space-time continuum, create a paradox that negates your very existence, or turn into a Claymation spaghetti monster like at the end of Timecop. And heaven forbid you step on the wrong butterfly!

Petite Maman is a much less stressful time-travel experience. For the follow-up to her 2019 arthouse hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire, French director Céline Sciamma has created the sweetest of sci-fi movies, the gentlest of time-travel tales, a compact little 72-minute film in which not much is said, but a great deal is communicated. It’s only slightly facetious to compare Petite Maman’s premise to Back to the Future: Both films are about a young person who goes back in time and meets their mother when she was their age. Don’t worry, though. In Sciamma’s film, there’s no weird sexual tension.

Joséphine Sanz makes her screen debut as Nelly, an 8-year-old girl who, as the film opens, is going from room to room to say goodbye to the residents of her grandma’s nursing home. Nelly’s grandmother recently died, so Nelly and her parents are closing up her room before driving out to the family’s country home for a bigger clean-up job. Once they arrive, Nelly’s parents have some sort of off-camera discussion — we never find out what about — and Nelly’s mom (Nina Meurisse) goes back to the city. Nelly is left behind with her dad (Stéphane Varupenne), who says they can leave as soon as they pack up the last of Grandmère’s things.

Eight-year-old Nelly and her father sit together in the bathroom in Petite Maman Photo: Neon

Puttering around the nearly empty house — little is left now but dusty shadows, crumbling school assignments, and ghostly imprints on ancient wallpaper — Nelly feels disconnected from her mom in a way she never has before. The next day, Nelly is searching for a lost ball when she spots a girl who looks exactly like her (played by Joséphine’s real-life twin, Gabrielle Sanz) playing in the woods. Like magic, the girl says her name is Marion — Nelly’s mother’s name.

Sciamma presents the fantastic elements of Petite Maman with an understated plainness, as if becoming friends with an 8-year-old version of your own mother was the most natural thing in the world. And Nelly’s curiosity about her mother’s past does make sense: Children’s existence so often revolves around their parents, but those parents had an entire separate life before any children came along. Early in the film, Nelly complains to her dad that he and Mom never tell her “any of the real stuff” about their childhoods. What were their fears? Their dreams? In this story, Nelly discovers one (admittedly pretty strange) way to find out.

Nelly and her mother, both at the same age, run through the forest with an inflatable raft in Petite Maman Photo: Neon

The Sanz twins’ performances are similarly unembellished. When Nelly goes into the funhouse-mirror version of her grandmother’s house for the first time, she doesn’t scream, jump, or even giggle nervously. She just politely excuses herself and runs home. The dialogue is muted as well. The characters spend a good deal of time quietly enjoying each other’s company: Nelly and Marion build a tree fort, make pancakes, read, explore, and play pretend. Their simple activities shift emotional tenors like the notes of a gentle melody, depending on the context of the scene. Accompanied by an exquisite color palette and lush synthesizer music from Para One, the effect is like holding a little jewel in your hands, each of its facets catching the light.

The most romantic thing about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the way the characters look at each other. Like that film, Petite Maman expresses love through meaningful glances and small gestures. It’s just that the type of affection being explored in this film is the love between mothers and daughters, a bond that can be extremely close and unknowably distant at the same time. Petite Maman is the work of an unusually sensitive filmmaker, and it speaks to Sciamma’s skill as a director that she’s able to express the nuances of this complicated dynamic through such simple actions and words.

There’s a deeper sadness around the edges of Petite Maman, an adult sadness that Nelly is still too young to really comprehend. Still, this is a film with a childlike point of view, although its simplicity belies the complexity of emotion on display. Many types of mothers and children will see themselves and their relationships in Petite Maman. And all of them can take comfort in its gentle fantasy of understanding and acceptance.

Petite Maman debuts in theaters on April 22.