In a world full of movies with running times that often hit or exceed three hours, there’s something so confident about Celine Sciamma’s 72 minutes. Little mom. A calm, poetic and charming ode to parenthood and loss, Little mom is Sciamma’s fifth feature film and its sequel to the highly acclaimed Portrait of a lady on fire. Sciamma’s strength as a writer and director is her seemingly effortless ability to infuse grand and deep emotions into films that feel personal and intimate.
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is eight years old and has just lost her grandmother (Margot Abascal). She accompanies her mother (Nina Meurisse) and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) to the house where her mother grew up. Now that her grandmother is dead, Nelly’s parents plan to gut and sell the house. Since the film is told through Nelly’s eyes, the circumstances of her grandmother’s death are never fully known. It’s clear, however, that Nelly’s mother is struggling to return to her childhood home so soon after losing her mother.
Nelly wakes up after spending a night at her grandmother’s house to find that her mother has come home. Her father tells Nelly that being in this house makes her mother sad and that she should leave while he and Nelly finish packing. Most of the work falls to her father, as Nelly is much more interested in adventure in the nearby woods. She remembers her mother talking about a treehouse she built when she was little, and Nelly goes looking for it.
In a clearing in the forest, Nelly sees another young girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who is building a tree house on the exact spot where her mother said she built hers. The two form the kind of immediate friendship that can only exist between children who need a friend. As they spend more time together, Nelly begins to feel that Marion could be her mother as a young girl.
What’s so special Little mom is the magical realism that allows Nelly to know her mother as a person outside of the identity of “mother”. Children often see their parents only as guardians. It’s almost impossible for Nelly to imagine her parents at the age she is now, as young, carefree individuals. For a brief period of three days, Nelly’s mother is Marion and she is Nelly’s best friend. They laugh while baking pancakes, write, direct and star in a movie of their own making, and top it all off with the quintessential youthful activity: a slumber party. Childhood friendships rarely last forever, but their impact is essential for growth and development.
As she hangs out with her mother as a child, Nelly also gets a second chance to say goodbye to her grandmother. It’s very important to Nelly because she feels like she didn’t say goodbye properly when her grandmother passed away. Despite her best efforts, she learns that there is no perfect way to do this. Everyone always wants more time. The problem with life is that it’s over, but love isn’t. Love for another person will never be completely distilled into a real goodbye.
Little mom is an exquisite reminder that we should all valiantly try to get to know the people we love, to find a deep understanding of what makes them uniquely them. The way they like their breakfast, their childhood fears, the doodles in their school notebooks. Little mom talks about the sanctity of sharing a life with someone and fiercely protecting the human bond.