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When You're My Age

Lilies Films

Petite Maman (2021)

In 72 short minutes, Céline Sciamma’s new film manages to cover grief, complicated families, the sadness of children and impossible magic. It builds a world where little girls have to negotiate, alone, the feelings of others and the limits of their own understanding. And it suggests that the best way to cope with these awful pressures is to go build yourself a home of your own.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is eight and already used to being her own person in the world, established in the opening sequence of her bidding farewell to the other residents of the old folks’ home in which her grandmother has recently died. Her parents (Nina Meurisse and Stéphane Varupenne) take her back to her grandmother’s house to pack it up for sale. Nelly watches as they fuss and fret, but it’s clear the pressure is too much for her mother. Nelly says nothing. She eats her cereal and goes to play in the woods which surround the house. She bumps into a girl her age, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), dragging a tree trunk for the hut she’s building herself. She asks for help, and Nelly obliges. When they are done, Marion invites Nelly over for a bowl of cocoa, where it’s immediately obvious something very strange and wonderful is happening. It should not be spoiled under any circumstances, because what follows is heartbreaking in the best way.

The gift of the time Nelly and Marion have together is held together, without going into spoilers, by Ms. Sciamma’s costumes and Lionel Brison’s production design. The nuances of an old house, with its weird noises and ways, are only really understood by someone who’s lived within it for a while. Of course, that means it can best be appreciated by an outsider like Nelly’s dad, who finds an old-timey shaving brush and straight razor and enlists her eager if inexpert help in shaving off his beard. The girls make crepes together, giggling as they break eggs into the batter, or set the table with the carefulness of someone concerned about the consequences of breaking a plate. They play dress-up. They build the hut as seen in the publicity photos, and Marion smiles with satisfaction as she tells Nelly it’s better than she could have imagined.

What is hard to get over is Marion’s sadness and Nelly’s calm. These wonderful little girls chat as they go about their work, where becomes clear that they both have already had more than their share of disappointment. But somehow they seem to carry within themselves, already, the ability to handle it, especially since they both understand their connection is extra special. A longer movie would have diluted the power of their performances and risked shattering their quiet world.

Ms. Sciamma is interested in how girls and young women move within a world that is generally not accepting of their interests and desires. Her gift is in capturing childhood’s intense focus on learning how to grow up. The seriousness of the girls as they explore the woods and discuss their worries is incredibly moving, not least because most films, whether for kids or for adults, do not do children the honor of treating them with respect. If “Petite Maman” did nothing else, it would be a remarkable achievement only for that. It’s a deeply emotional modern fairy tale.


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