In the early scenes of Céline Sciamma’s soft new film, little mommy, 8-year-old Nelly (played by Joséphine Sanz) is exploring a sort of haunted house – the quiet abode of her recently deceased grandmother. The location is mundane. Nevertheless, it’s tinged with melancholy, a feeling that someone of Nelly’s age would struggle to articulate, but that Sciamma easily expresses with every empty room and stilted mature conversations that take place around her young protagonist. Many viewers may find the setting familiar, a solid foundation for a humble story that takes off unexpectedly.
little mommy is Sciamma’s latest contribution since the devastating Portrait of a burning lady, a period novel that was the strongest work of the French director’s already exciting career. She wisely followed up on that film’s soaring emotions with something much more contained and muted; little mommy is lively, has only five speaking parts, and is set almost entirely in and around Nelly’s grandmother’s house, where her family commutes over eating cereal, rummaging through boxes and patting each other on the shoulder. The scale is small, but also whimsical, because one morning when Nelly goes exploring in the woods outside the house, she comes across another 8-year-old named Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who looks exactly like her – and is, she soon realizes, her mother, has somehow been transported through time.
Sciamma’s script doesn’t deal with the physics of time travel, or exactly how it comes that when Nelly follows Marion home, she instead finds a version of her grandmother’s house from several decades ago. This is the lowest possible sci-fi imaginable, but a perfect match for Sciamma’s cozy tone. She illustrates a childish fantasy: that one day you might get to know your parent as a peer, rather than as an authority figure. Through the eerie casting of Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz (who are twin sisters in real life), she conjures up simple, wistful magic.
Lots of scenes in little mommy watch Nelly and Marion play – they build a fortress of sticks in the woods, act out soap operas and make food for each other. In either case, their parents are curiously unflappable about two 8-year-olds wandering around unsupervised, barely raising an eyebrow at the fact that the pair appear to be each other’s exact look-alikes. That nonchalance only adds to the soft illusion, as if Nelly has spun herself a bubble, within which she won’t be bothered by the worries of adults.
Perhaps oddly enough, I was most reminded of Hayao Miyazaki .’s animation classic My neighbor Totoro, which is a movie for many extravagant fantasies (flying creatures, a cat that is also a bus, and the like). But it is also very interested in telling a story about children from their eye level, even when there are heavier worries in the background. In totoro, the main characters’ mother is recovering from an illness. likewise, little mommy does not ignore the obvious turmoil the parents are going through. The adult Marion seems troubled as she packs up her late mother’s house, and Nelly gains a deeper understanding of the dynamics of her maternal family as she continues to journey through the past.
Despite the high-concept premise, Sciamma lets the story unfold through naturalistic, childlike dialogue. Nelly and Marion mainly deal with innocuous things, but every now and then let slip some half-understood piece of information they’ve gathered from a parent. Sciamma has always been good with young actors – her movies water lilies† Tomboyand Girlhood are all astute snapshots of adolescence and the confusing dynamics that can often occur in schools.
little mommy keeps its vision fixed on Nelly and Marion, because this movie is like a very special memory, the kind you might remember as an adult and dismiss as a lingering, childhood dream. The story is short, it’s barely action-packed, and yet the topics are comprehensive: coping with grief, growing up, and trying to understand a parent from a whole new perspective. Magna operas have been written on these subjects for hundreds of years; Sciamma manages to cram numerous insights into just 72 minutes.