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Petite Maman

Fairy tales do come true, or so Disney would have us believe. The French, as in writer/director Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman, make a whimsical tale come true by using a technique Walt would have appreciated, magical realism.

When an eight-year-old girl, Nelly (Josephine Sanz), meets her eight-year-old mother, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), not only do they make you believe, but they also give dignity to a deeply-embedded longing we have to know our parents when they were our age.

This all-too-brief 72 min fantasy reaches an imaginative high whereby the soft and precise longings of a bright adolescent girl to hold onto her mother take place in the traditional forest of fairy tales. Mom had built a hut here long ago and now emerges to greet her daughter, same age 8. They bond immediately, laugh girlie silly, and generally devour their friendship.

As in fairy tales and life itself, the romance must end, especially since mom’s operation on her leg is imminent, evidenced by her using her cane. Although the timing of the events is not always linear, Sciamma has made it clear she is not interested in accuracy but rather in the honesty of the emotions and the arc of the characters.

While Sciamma crafted a far more popular, potboiling Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman is like its title, a minimalist ode to the challenges of longing inherent in the mother-daughter romance. There will never be enough time, and no one will be able to know completely the most important person in their lives. Yet, Sciamma shows that small moments loom large in the memory, as when Nelly feeds mom cheese puffs from the back of the car, while Marion is driving. It’s a ritual that binds.

The Sanz twins (they call themselves “sisters born on the same day) are like fantasy actors, smart but not overbearing, never too cute but abnormally insightful. They deliver the emotional heart of this low-key film that posits a child may fantastically come to know a mother as a real person.

Petit Maman is a lyrical song to mother and daughters, who never know their mothers well enough until a brilliant filmmaker shows them how.

The best fantasy this year, the best mother-daughter tale ever.

Petite Maman

Director: Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire)

Screenplay: Sciamma

Cast: Josephine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz

Run Time: 1h 13m

Rating: PG

John DeSando holds a BA from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in English from The University of Arizona. He served several universities as a professor, dean, and academic vice president. He has been producing and broadcasting as a film critic on It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics for more than two decades. DeSando received the Los Angeles Press Club's first-place honors for national entertainment journalism.