PETITE MAMAN

Reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival.

A young girl’s grandmother has died. So she goes to a cottage in the woods with her mother and father to clean out the house. One day, she, Nelly, wanders into the woods behind the cottage and meets another young girl. Both girls are eight years old, and the second looks just like the first. And like most eight-year-olds, they immediately form a friendship. The second invites the first over to her house, and what do you know: It’s another identical cottage hidden in the woods.

The similarities don’t stop there. The second little girl’s name is Marion, and she is about to have surgery. The same surgery Nelly’s mother recently had. With a bit of luck, the surgery will keep Marion from succumbing to the same ailment her mother—Marion’s mother that is—has.

Marion’s mother is not the only one afflicted by this disease, though to say who might give away too much. Not that Petite maman, from writer/director Céline Sciamma, is the kind of mystery that, once solved, lets the air out of the balloon. It’s more like a fairy tale: You figure out what’s going on about halfway through, and it makes the proceedings all the more interesting.

I grew up in the suburbs, in the kind of development where a builder would use the same design for several houses on the same street. Some houses had identical floor plans; some were inverted. Entering these houses was like peering into an alternate universe: The couch was on the left side of the living room, and the kitchen window faced north. And considering we all inhabited the same time and space and existed in the same tax bracket, these homes had the same dark kitchens, the same wooden furniture, the same family photos taken inside the same Sears’ photo studio on the mantel, and the same autumnal color palette cinematographer Claire Mathon employs in Petite maman

I have no idea what kind of house Sciamma grew up in or what homes she visited as a child, whether they were identical or different, but Petite maman feels personal. Like diary personal. Identical twins Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz star as Nelly and Marion. You could try to track who is who by following their outfits—overalls, specifically—or paying attention to who has a ponytail, but that would only distract. Instead, forget the differences and focus on the similarities. That’s where the real stories lie.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Petite maman (2021)
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma
Produced by Bénédicte Couvreur
Starring: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse, Stéphane Varupenne, Margot Abascal
Neon, Not rated, Running time 72 minutes, Release date TBA.