What is it about stories of dealing with grief that go hand in hand with children? In recent years, several films have broached the topic of death and loss through the eyes of the most innocent generation and elicited sparkling results. A Monster Calls and The Place of No Words faced the topic through a heavily fantastical lens and delivered a commendable emotional punch in doing so. Petite Maman, the latest venture from Céline Sciamma, the director of one of 2019’s best, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, tackles the same topic in a similarly fantastic vein, but grounded in heart-warming reality.

Following the death of her grandmother, the unnamed parents of Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) are clearing out her old home, a place of great importance to her mother who spent much of her youth building forts in the woods behind the house. Nelly, who spends the days exploring the very same woods, stumbles upon a young girl building a fort, and the two share an adventure-filled few days together, pontificating on life and death through the eyes of babes.

Petite Maman is one of the loveliest films of all time. How to explain that very idea was more challenging than anticipated, because it’s hard to communicate the impact Petite Maman had as the cinema emptied. At only 72 minutes, Petite Maman flies by, but crams so much into its remarkably short length and leaves such an impression that it’s sure to remain in your thoughts for weeks. It has an effective simplicity of staging, one that emphasises the loneliness of Nelly as she initially plays alone in a dense, leafy wood or her isolation in a house slowly dissipating all signs of life, and has an admiration of the autumnal colour scheme that is as gorgeous as anything on film this year.

Petite Maman is aiming for a specific tone, one of kindness and compassion. Sciamma’s lens feels gentle. It allows the children, Nelly and her new friend, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz, twin of Joséphine), the space they need to act out their fantasies (sometimes literally), to explore the new reality around them, and to not intrude on their emotional conversations. Nelly and Marion share their matter-of-fact thoughts on loss, grief, fear, love, all of life’s most challenging subjects, but Sciamma keeps her distance and, quite simply, lets kids be kids. It’s impossible to not be drawn into their child-like wonder and feel a smile spread across your face as they make a mess of the kitchen while making crêpes, in so doing, Petite Maman instils a genuine feeling of warmth. It’s so sweet, endearing, and soft, it will leave you feeling as calm as you could ever wish to as you leave the cinema.

It’s a testament to Sciamma’s ability that she has drawn such miraculous performances from a pair of nine-year-old twins. Nelly is a quietly confident observer, studying her parents’ mood from a distance and delivering honest answers to them when called upon. Her solo wanderings into the woods showcase a child certain in herself, seemingly unmoved by her recent loss, but conversations steadily reveal she has dealt with it personally, quietly, and effectively, expressing feelings of regret over sadness. The longing to be able to say goodbye haunts her thoughts as opposed to the loss itself, a feeling she has reflected upon privately compared to the outward expressions of grief shown by her mother.

Marion, meanwhile, facing a personal problem of her own as she grows closer to a dangerous back operation in the coming days, expresses her feelings of fear to Nelly with stark maturity, wise beyond her years, but perfectly in-keeping with the little fantasy Sciamma has crafted. Marion studies Nelly closely, aware of the respective importance they have to each other, but makes a gorgeous declaration near the film’s conclusion that drew tears when it hit. It’s a stunning moment, succinctly summarising the importance this type of lightning in a bottle friendship (who hasn’t made friends with a stranger on holiday and, for one week only, they’re the best friend you’ve ever had) can have on children. Nelly and Marion’s characteristics are so evident that the two are a perfect match, the kind of friendship that transcends space and time itself. Truly, Sciamma’s ability to craft such a well-realised relationship in so few scenes is utter magic.

Petite Maman, a shift away from Sciamma’s usual style considering the themes of Portrait and Girlhood, is a gorgeous achievement. It’s a film that manages to convey the same feeling of warmth that comes from a much-needed hug from your best friend, one that comforts you by creating a genuine, heartfelt atmosphere for you to get lost in. I could have been in those woods for days. Sciamma only needed 72 minutes.

Rating: ★★★★★

Petite Maman is out in UK cinemas today.

Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Nina Meurisse