TIFF Review: 'Petite Maman' Captures the Wide-Eyed Wonder of Childhood Directed by Céline Sciamma

Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne
TIFF Review: 'Petite Maman' Captures the Wide-Eyed Wonder of Childhood Directed by Céline Sciamma
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Céline Sciamma's female gaze was all anyone could talk about during the festival season a couple of years ago thanks to her film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Before that, her films Tomboy, Water Lilies and Girlhood looked at life through the lens of children and teenagers. In her latest film, Petite Maman, working once again with the assured cinematography of Claire Mathon, the narrative returns to being told through a child's eye — a work of fantasy that plays out like the most comforting of bedtime stories.

Eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) has just lost her grandmother and is to spend time with her mother (Nina Meurisse) and father (Stéphane Varupenne) clearing out her grandmother's home. Sadness looms overhead, and especially in her mother's eyes. Being at her childhood home is too painful for her, so she leaves. Nelly, now alone with her father, decides to go exploring, to find where her mother built a hut in the woods when she was her age. Coincidentally on this journey, she meets a girl her age in the woods named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) who's building a hut of her own. Marion's resemblance to Nelly is eerie, and when they get caught in the rain, they run to Marion's house, which is mysteriously identical to that of Nelly's grandmother's. As it becomes apparent that the past and the present are merging together, a connection is revealed — and it's something truly special and life-changing.

Petite Maman is the definition of short and sweet, packing a wallop in just 72 minutes that most films can't do in two hours. So incredibly tender and infectious, the film's two leads, real-life sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, are adorable. As they play board games, put on plays and make crepes, they tackle themes of death and fear. They speak and convey emotion with so much maturity. While sadness hangs over much of the narrative, there are also moments of pure joy that take us to when we were young; when dreams meant everything and our imagination ran free.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 18. Get info about in-person and online screenings at the festival website. (Elevation)