While in the forest surrounding her grandmother’s house, Nelly discovers a similarly aged little girl (Gabrielle Sanz) building a fort. Her name is Marion, just like her mother, and she bears more than a passing resemblance to Nelly. (The two actors are sisters.) When Marion invites Nelly home, she brings her to the same house Nelly left when she entered the forest despite not following the same path. Watch Sanz’s surprised reaction when she presses the part of the wall that revealed a secret door earlier in the film. She figures this jump to the past rather quickly, and after an initial hesitation, decides to pursue wherever this adventure takes her.
What’s most refreshing about “Petite Maman” is that it doesn’t play coy with its magic, nor does it separate it from the sadder, darker reality that surrounds it. Nelly tells the young Marion that she is her daughter, and that she knows the surgery Marion will be undergoing the next day will have its repercussions but will also serve the purpose of keeping her from the affliction that caused her mother to use that cane. Rather than ask how the two wound up on the same timeline, young Marion asks for more information. The two bond in ways that the adult Marion and her child simply cannot. They play games, and we see the similarities between the two. Imagine if you knew your parent as a kid, the film asks, and the possibilities haunted and intrigued me long after the film was over.
I am so much like my own mother, and she is very much like her dad, who died when I was 18 months old. Many days I have wondered that, If I’d known him better, I’d know mom better, and by extension, I’d understand myself. “Petite Maman” inspires that kind of feeling, and does so in a fashion that is simple on the surface, yet commendably complex upon introspection. When Nelly and the adult version of Marion see each other at the end, the result is emotionally overwhelming, even more so when you realize that the film accomplishes this catharsis with two words. These two are rediscovering themselves. We forget a lot of things when we grow up. This film is a wonderful reminder.
Now playing in theaters.