After Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the film world had its eyes fixated on what Céline Sciamma would do next. Few would have guessed Sciamma would scale down her follow-up. Sciamma’s latest, Petite Mamam, tells the tale of a young girl looking for connections to those she loves. How she finds that connection is both unexpected and heartfelt. With gorgeous cinematography and beautiful storytelling, Sciamma once again strikes gold.
Petite Mamam follows Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), a young girl who has recently lost her maternal grandmother. She travels with her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) to sort out her grandmother’s belongings. However, an awkwardness hangs in the air between her parents. While playing in the woods, Nelly meets Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). The two girls quickly strike up a friendship, but when Nelly visits Marion’s home, the strength of their bond becomes apparent. As the two grow close, Nelly begins to discover what it means to grow up through hardship.
Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz are the gems of the film, brilliantly capturing maturity beyond their years. When hearing the perfect dialogue between the two actresses, it is hard to imagine many child actors could create such melancholy and happiness within the same role. Sciamma gets the most out of the young actresses, especially with the weight of the film resting on their shoulders.
Sciamma’s prowess as a director is on full display as she displays total control over the film. On the page, Nelly is an inquisitive and thoughtful girl. Her first moments on screen prove that she is worthy of empathy, especially as she delivers heartbreaking lines. Despite these setbacks, Sciamma never lets the character lose her moral compass. As Nelly’s beating heart powers the film, Sciamma slyly introduces the high-concept elements to help Petite Mamam endure. The balancing act in the film could topple under less skilled hands, making Petite Mamam feel gimmicky. Instead, the film is a triumph of creative storytelling.
One of the triumphs of Petite Mamam is the restraint Sciamma shows in its depiction of divorce. While the father (Varupenne) and mother (Meurisse) seem amicable on screen, the corrosion of their marriage is apparent. In films like Marriage Story or Kramer vs. Kramer, the end of the marriage feels apocalyptic. However, Petite Mamam cares too much for its characters to let the explosion go off with the cameras rolling. Instead, Sciamma recognizes the complex and tragic thoughts going through Nelly’s mind. Rather than burying them away, Petite Mamam becomes a different kind of rumination on grief and divorce by vocalizing these thoughts.
The expertly written screenplay would be impressive in its own right, but Sciamma extracts the emotion out of every word with the blocking and shot selection. Sciamma’s partnership with Claire Mathon proves fruitful once again. Mathon frames beautiful shot after beautiful shot, constantly adding layers of intrigue to the story. The patience to let shots develop is key to unlocking some of the best moments in the film. This patience also develops introspective moments throughout the film, once again capitalizing on the strength of the girls’ performances. Mathon captures the non-verbals of each performance with small camera movements and well-blocked shots.
From beginning to end, Petite Mamam makes the audience feel every emotion under the sun. Sadness and joy exist hand-in-hand throughout the film, which can often lead to tonal inconsistencies. In Sciamma’s hands, this spectrum feels necessary and appropriate. One of the great films of 2021, Petite Mamam’s brisk 72-minutes feels like the ultimate tease. That Sciamma can be so skillful of a storyteller in that little time is its own little miracle.
ALAN FRENCH’S RATING FOR PETITE MAMAM IS AN 9 OUT OF 10.