2022 Milwaukee Film Festival: Day 15 “Petite Maman”

We reached the end of the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival with a full house and the much anticipated PETITE MAMAN. It’s been heartening to see the return of the in person film festival, and enthusiastic crowds. And those who made it out for the final day were treated to one of the very best films of the festival.

PETITE MAMAN is Céline Sciamma’s much anticipated followup to PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE. In PETITE MAMAN, Sciamma explores love once again, but rather than romantic love it’s the love between a mother and daughter that is the core of the film. PETITE MAMAN opens with 8 year old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her mother (Nina Meurisse) dealing with the recent death of Nelly’s grandmother. They’re packing up the old family house where Nelly’s mother lived and used to play in the woods. Soon, the mother disappears and Nelly discovers another little girl playing in the woods, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who looks remarkably like her. And the two young girls hit it off immediately.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what’s going on here. Nelly figures it out almost immediately and accepts it for what it is. And then there’s the title, PETITE MAMAN. But, the central conceit is a way for Sciamma to explore the relationship between mothers and daughters. How they’re the same and how they’re different. What their hopes and dreams are. And what their fears are. And to recapture a child-like sense of wonder. How do we deal with grief? And to explore the fact that one can get what you want and still be sad and for the loved one to understand.

Despite grappling with some heady and potentially heavy ideas, Céline Sciamma directs PETITE MAMAN with a light touch. The color palette is vibrant. And the film is full of humor, as you would expect of a story of friendship between two girls who like to do things like make pancakes and stage plays. Every once in awhile Sciamma’s script will drop a little bomb out of the mouth of babes, but although this is a film about dealing with grief, it’s also full of life, joy, and promise. And, you wonder if this is perhaps autobiographical to an extent. The story appears to be set in the 1980s when Céline Sciamma was of similar age to the two girls at the center of the story.

Beyond the directing, there’s a wonderful child performance by Joséphine Sanz at the center of the movie. She’s precocious, direct, warm, and a wonderful screen presence. She plays off of everyone beautifully and is a complete natural on camera.

PETITE MAMAN is no less a triumph than PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE marking Sciamma as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. It’s probably best of the 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival.

The 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival is over, but Milwaukee Film continues to operate the Oriental Theatre year round. PETITE MAMAN is currently enjoying a threatrical run at the Oriental Theatre. Tickets can be purchased at mkefilm.org.