It's always interesting to see where a director goes after making A Big One, and Céline Sciamma certainly hasn't made A Bigger One than her fourth feature, 2019's Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She also hasn't made a less characteristic one, which is perhaps why her follow-up, Petite Maman, is such a pointed step towards the small and artisanal, a tight little 72-minute long character piece that has a grand total of eight credited actors, three of whom don't count, and only three locations to speak of. It's the kind of movie that goes for potency over flash, focusing intently on precisely-rendered emotional intimacy of a sort that needs no resources nor high-budget filmmaking, but just the keen insight of a gifted storyteller and observer of human behavior.

With that kind of windup, it would be great if I could report that I in fact loved Petite Maman - if not as much as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which would be a steep order anyways, at least on it sown terms as a perfect little miniature. No such luck, though even if the film fails to hit greatness, it routinely sticks around in very-goodness. Its biggest problem is that, even at its wee tiny running time, it still ends up feeling like it's circling around the same few ideas for scenes, giving it a distinct feeling of having been padded out. But they are very lovely scenes, and it is not such a bad thing to spend a lot of time with them.

The film starts out with some of its very best material, an elusive, impressionistic sketch of life that finds eight-year-old Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) wandering from room to room in a nursing home, saying goodbye to the residents, all of this happening in one smooth tracking shot. And it ends on Nelly asking her mother (Nina Meurisse) if she can keep "her stick". All of it very elliptical, understated, not doing anything to tell us that Nelly's grandmother has just died; it all just kind of clicks, and you suddenly realise it, through the collection of perfectly-placed details and through Sanz's shockingly nuanced performance, guided by Sciamma with care and deep respect for a child's ability to plumb real emotions, not just pantomime of adult emotions that serves as a helpful reminder that before she was dabbling with costume drama lesbians, this director was honing her skills with child actors in things like the 2011 Tomboy.

This opening is so flawless in its subtlety and its gradual flowering of deep, painful emotions of grief and loss that Nelly can't quite figure out how to articulate that it was probably fated to be the best part of the movie, and it's not really a slight on Petite Maman to say that this turns out to be exactly the case. There's still plenty of small treasures to come: Nelly and her mom go to her late grandmother's home to start emptying it out, and while Mom takes this with what appears to be bittersweet nostalgia, apparently it's all a lot harder on her than that, because the next morning she's gone (Meurisse and Sciamma have an unusually tricky needle to thread: Mom's emotional journey is crucial to the film, but she spends almost all of it offscreen, which means her few early scenes need to be both laden with foreshadowing and tell the relatively straightforward story of a mother trying to avoid letting her daughter know how sad she is). Nelly's dad (Stéphane Varupenne), whose marriage was apparently not at a high ebb prior to his wife's bereavement, based on the little tendrils of moments we get of him and her together, and his somewhat abashed "I can do better!" vibe that  he can't really just unload on his daughter, is still around to clean things out, and while he does that, Nelly wanders into the forest outside. There, she meets a girl her own age, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), and they immediately strike up a deep, powerful friendship as two little children are so good at doing. And here, the reviews of the film have seemingly all agreed that we'll pretend that you have no idea where this is going, despite Nelly and Marion looking identical, as makes sense given that they're played by twin sisters, and despite the title of the film being Petite Maman. But alright, we can put a pin in it here; Nelly cottons to the Amazing Secret soon enough and decides not to let it interfere with the wonderful fun she and Marion are having, and how this is all giving her a much, much richer access to the emotions of loss and affection she can't fully express, and giving her a new perspective on the personality of her- I'm sorry, of "Marion's mother" (Margot Abascal).

We have here, anyway, a slice of pureblooded Magical Realism, a mode that is tough to make work in movies, and Sciamma glides right over that challenge without even seeming to notice it; the situation simply is, and the strange feelings that both Nelly and Marion feel as a result of it are far more important than trying to logic around it. This is a little bit fable, a little bit fantasy, a little bit strange metaphorical dream, but above all else it's about two eight-year-old girls finding something wonderful and nourishing in each other's company. The Sanzes are fantastic at working through all of this while also letting the unspoken gloomy emotions in their characters' lives hover over every bit of their acting (Marion is days away from a very frightening surgery); Joséphine gives the more fully lived-in performance, but she's also got more screentime to work with, and frankly the better role; Marion is by necessity more of a concept for Nelly to bounce off of than a fully-fledged character, and Gabrielle sometimes turns that into snappish monotone for lack of a clearer path through. Still, both young actors are up to something wildly impressive here, making Sciamma's heavily intellectual, symbolic narrative function as a snapshot of several consecutive afternoons of two little girls faffing about in the woods.

It's all very sweet and good-natured, and I do think it indulges itself too much; a lot of the movie just consists of watching the Sanzes goof around pleasantly with each other, and this stops providing revelatory new material a long time before Sciamma stops sharing it with us. To a certain extent, given how obvious the "twist" is and how disinterested the film is in even treating as a twist, the whole movie feels like a waiting game to find out whatever happens at the end when Meurisse comes back. To be entirely fair: the last scene is superb. Indeed, if the first scene is the film's best, I think the last scene is its second-best, and that's a pretty great place for any movie to end up at. Sciamma has some very smart insights to present to us about how little girls relate to their mothers - and, entirely through implication and the practically invisible gradations in Meurisse's performance, how mothers relate to their little girls. It's just that Petite Maman is a slightly baggy way to get at those insights. And it's also rather a plain-looking thing, surely by intention, to keep up that feeling of just a rough little sketch of a tossed-off film made on a lark in the woods. But there are surprisingly few striking shots, for something shot by Claire Mathon, who has very quickly became one of my favorite working cinematographers in the last couple of years, in part because of her astonishing work with Sciamma. Petite Maman is snug and well-crafted, but rarely inspired as a work of visual art; it relies on repeated compositions and a lot of natural lighting, giving it a cozy intimacy but nothing that feels like it's doing more than slapping images underneath the philosophical mechanics of the script.

And that's maybe the problem with it; once you get the hook, and that happens pretty damn fast, Petite Maman is basically just noodling around with ideas you don't really need to watch the movie to get. Still, as it works through this, it does so with wonderful warmth and humanity, full of such admiration for the resilience and emotional lives of children, all without ever once dipping into saccharine sentiment or mushy bromides. It is, in fact, a bit tough and snappish in its portrayal of how kids face darkness, and that is a lovely thing, almost as lovely as the warmth itself. This is unabashedly, even intentionally minor, but there's a lot of soul in it.