'Petite Maman' review: A special bond between mother and daughter

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' director Céline Sciamma returns with an enchanting sort-of fairy tale.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

An odd, sweet, mysterious, soulful, warm little film about loss and connection, "Petite Maman" raises a few more questions than it answers, but sometimes explanation is overrated.  

This is one of those cases. Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is an 8-year-old who has just lost her grandmother. She accompanies her mother and her uncle to her grandma's house while they clean it out. On the way there, from the backseat, Nelly offers her mother a snack, a sip from her juicebox and a hug. The two are more connected than they even know.    

Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in “Petite Maman.”

Nelly, a deeply independent soul, asks questions of her mother and her uncle and how they grew up. She doesn't want just surface level answers, she wants to know "the real stuff." And she's not easily dismissed. 

In the woods where her mother used to play, she finds a fort being built out of sticks and logs by a neighbor girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). Nelly goes to Marion's house, which weirdly mirrors her grandmother's home, with just a few minor differences. Nelly and Marion form a connection, which goes deeper than they're totally able to grasp, and "Petite Maman" — the title translates to "Little Mom" — explores their spiritual bond. 

"Petite Maman" is delicately, beautifully directed by Céline Sciamma, who also made 2019's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire." She has a profound understanding of female characters and relationships, explored here in the two children, and both Sanz sisters, Joséphine especially (the two are twins), give confident, assured, wise beyond their years performances. This is an ethereal film that works better on an emotional level than it does a literal level; it's a film that feels, so let yourself feel it, too. That's the real stuff. 



'Petite Maman' 


Rated PG: for some thematic elements and brief smoking 

Running time: 72 minutes

In theaters