The ineffable mysteries of childhood have inspired filmmakers as widely different as Satyajit Ray and Hayao Miyazaki. Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman too is avidly attuned to the phase of life that is characterised by boundless imagination and unregulated time.

The film is set in an unspecified period and takes place over what could be either minutes or days. Following the death of her grandmother, Nelly travels with her parents to the grandmother’s country home. There, Nelly forms a bond with Marion, a girl who is her age.

The French production is being streamed on Mubi. At 72 minutes, Petite Maman (Little Mother) is Sciamma’s shortest movie yet. Sciamma’s screenplay has the feel of pages that have been torn out of a childhood diary and brought to life. In these pages are secrets and adventure, the wisdom of children and the private rules that govern their interactions and understanding of the adults in the room.

Sciamma’s previous features include Tomboy, a sensitive study of the impact of assigned gender identity on a young girl. In Petite Maman, the twins Josephine and Gabrielle Sanz magnificently convey themes of death, grief and absence. The intimate camerawork and frontal views of the children, who are often captured at eye-level, are by Claire Mathon, who also shot Sciamma’s award-winning Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

As Petite Maman moves between sun-kissed exteriors and underlit interiors, Nelly’s journey gains both meaning and enchantment. “I’m sad too,” the girl with the golden curls tells her grieving mother – a moment of transference where it is hard to tell who is the child and who is the grown-up.

Petite Maman (2021).