WHAT I LIKED: Perhaps the most amazing thing about people is that we make up stories to help us deal with and understand difficult things. No-one does that more than kids though, and Celine Sciamma's 'Petite Maman,' joins the likes of 'The Breadwinner,' and 'A Monster Calls,' in being a film that's all about that.
It follows an eight year-old girl called Nelly (Josephine Sanz) moving into her Mum's childhood home to sort out their late grandmother's things, and in trying to underatand the loss and struggle around her, she meets an almost identical friend Marion (played by her twin Gabrielle) who lives in an almost identical house with an almost identical life to hers. I don't wish to spoil anything, and ultimately it's not important whether she's imaginary or something else, it's just wonderful that what the film does is have Nelly play games and talk about mortality and adult relationships with Marion so that she can come to terms with what's happening and bridge the emotional distance between her and her Mum.
But it's also the way Sciamma brings that to life so cinematically that makes it so engaging, as, whilst 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire,' may have been a film with a much larger scope and a much more evocative backdrop, you can tell the same woman is behind the lens here. She lingers so long in every shot; allowing the audience time not only to figure out what's going on without any unnecessary dialogue or attempts to explain, but also to feel the momentary emotions that characters experience and share. One shot at the beginning for example shows Nelly in the back seat of her Mum's car after visiting her grandmother's care home for the last time, and the camera just stays on the mother's face for a good fourty seconds as Nelly hands her snacks. In that moment we get to see and feel her sadness, as well as the way Nelly is trying to offer her love and support even though there's an obvious distance between the child and adult.
That kind of slow editing keeps your eyes on the screen throughout, but it's only thanks to the performances Sciamma captures within them that it hits you in the gut, as both the young actors seem utterly natural in their long, exposed takes.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: As adults, it is ultimately a film where we spend most of our time watching a character try to understand a situation that we already get from the first few frames. That means there's little of the unexpected in Sciamma's slow reveals, beyond the relatively unimportant mystery surrounding who Nelly's friend is.
VERDICT: 'Petite Maman,' is a beautiful little film about a child trying to understand her grandmother's passing and mother's grief through young friendship. It's another cinematic triumph from Celine Sciamma.