Saturday, July 15, 2023

How I Met My Mother

Film: Petite Maman
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t tend to watch a lot of movies that have time travel as a central component, and yet I find myself having watched two of them today (the other will show up here around Halloween). While the first has clear horror themes, Petite Maman is about as far from a horror movie as you can get. This is a sort of fable, a little story of loss and family told with a measure of childlike wonder. This should not be too shocking, coming from Celine Sciamma, who also directed Portrait of a Lady on Fire a few years ago with the same gentle touch.

When the film begins, the grandmother of young Nelly (Josephine Sanz) has died. Nelly’s mother (Nina Meurisse) is naturally depressed as she, Nelly, and her husband (Stephane Varupenne) go to the grandmother’s house to clean it, go through everything, and prepare to empty it out. This proves too much for Nelly’s mother, who disappears the next morning, needing to be away.

In the meantime, Nelly goes exploring in the nearby forest, where she has heard that when she was a child, her mother had something like a treehouse, albeit one that was on the ground. As she looks for a suitable spot, she discovers a young girl about her own age. Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) invites Nelly back to her house, where Nelly discovers that it is identical to that of her grandmother. More upsetting in the moment is that it actually is her grandmother’s house, somehow back in time, and Marion is actually her own mother, but 23 years in the past.

That is the crux of the movie, and what happens from here could go in a number of directions. Petite Maman’s choice is to take this in a rather wholesome way. Nelly and Marion quickly become friends, having a great deal in common. Nelly also gets a chance to interact with her grandmother at a much younger age. Over time, Nelly has to determine if she will reveal to her friend that she, Nelly, is actually her daughter from the future, and if she does, how it might affect their relationship. Along the way, she must deal with the loss of her grandmother and the realization that her mother truly was a child as she is now, something we all know about our parents without perhaps truly believing it.

Petite Maman is, as I said above, a small film. This is not a story of earthshaking consequences or the toppling of dynasties. This is about love and loss, and about coming to terms with who we are and who the people we love are as well. As such, the movie is the opposite of epic length—it’s a mere 73 minutes. It’s honestly exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story it wants to, but it was sweet enough that I would be pleased to have seen it go a bit longer. As for my part, I was genuinely pleased that I didn’t have to deal with convoluted plots and intersecting timelines. There’s just this sort of connection to the past that works and doesn’t need to be overthought or explained.

There are odd connections here to other films for me, both mentally and emotionally. There are elements here that are kind of reflective of My Neighbor Totoro in terms of the setting, the absent mother from much of the narrative and the overall feel of the fantasy. There also feels like a connection to something like Celine and Julie Go Boating, and I’m not sure why.

The entire film rests on the performance of the two girls, and they are a treat. There are a number of times where it genuinely feels like they aren’t working off a script but are simply being a couple of sisters (or mother and child, if you prefer) being kids together. There is very much a sense of simply existing in the world around them, of being there without necessarily needing to put on a performance. It comes across as natural and lovely, and it truly makes the film work well.

Roger Ebert once said that no good movie is ever too long, and he was right. There are, though, plenty of good movies that are too short, and I think Petite Maman is one of them. This is not a film that needs to be longer for the poem that it is offering its audience, but it is a film that creates a world I want to spend more time in.

Why to watch Petite Maman: It’s a truly lovely little story.
Why not to watch: It’s so short!


  1. I've only seen 2 feature films in Girlhood and Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Celine Sciamma plus 2 shorts she has done and honestly, she is phenomenal as I want to see this and all of her other films.

    1. There are real similarities in style here. I found this really lovely, and the kids are both great.

  2. This was a cute story, but it was very short! I actually wish she would've cut it down a bit more so it could've competed as a short film, then Celina Sciamma would probably have an Oscar.

    1. You're probably right about that. Sciamma seems like someone destined to have multiple Oscars in her future.