Petite Maman, Turning Red, Fantasy Film and the Mother-Daughter Bond

Mother-daughter relationships, especially in cinema, have often been fraught with complications. There’s a natural tension in even the most loving bonds between individuals who have so much in common, but are divided by age and the confines of the relational dynamic they find themselves in; the mother and daughter are doomed to not quite understand one another, at least until they’re both a little bit older and wiser. But at the same time, films like Turning Red and Petite Maman use elements of fantasy to remove the barrier and put them both on the same level – in each, daughters are given the opportunity to communicate with their own mothers as children. With this, they are able to see the person that exists beyond “Mom” and better understand not just their own relationship, but a legacy of matrilineal bonds that stretches back generations.

Meilin Lee of Turning Red adores her mother. But as she reaches her teenage years, she can’t help feeling the pressure she places on her to remain the perfect, obedient daughter, regardless of her own interests and impulses. This all comes to a head when she spontaneously turns into a giant red panda, apparently a family curse passed down through the ages to all the women in their family. They are expected to control the spirit of the red panda by participating in a ceremony that will see it repressed, locked away forever in a piece of jewelry or trinket. And it is precisely this burden of expectation that defines the relationships between not just Meilin and her mother Ming, but Ming and her own mother. Throughout much of the film, Ming is a confident, even domineering wife, parent, and business owner. But when news arrives that her mother, the ominous Grandma Wu, is on her way to visit, Ming is riddled with anxiety, terrified of disappointing her.

Neither can see how much they are both encumbered by the same emotional weight – that this legacy of responsibility to family at the expense of one’s sense of self negatively impacts how they view one another. It’s only when Meilin journeys to the astral plane alongside the other women in her family that they finally see each other as they actually are. Meilin comes across the 13-year-old version of Ming, crumpled to the ground sobbing, racked with guilt, and convinced that she’ll never be enough to please her demanding mother. With this newfound understanding of Ming’s inner emotional life, Meilin can see with fresh eyes both the pressure they’ve both been placed under and the powerful love they have for each other. This is what gives her the strength to maintain her connection to her red panda (and, by extension, all her most powerful and overwhelming emotions) rather than suppressing it entirely. 

Where Turning Red features this one pivotal moment of connection between 13-year-old mother and daughter, Petite Maman spends the majority of its runtime cultivating a rich bond between a young girl and the child version of her mother. When Nelly arrives at a quaint house in the woods, it’s on a rather melancholy mission: Her grandmother has just died, and her parents are beginning the painful process of emptying it out. Overwhelmed by grief, her mother, Marion, flees in the middle of the night, leaving the young Nelly confused in an already unsettled situation. Marion, a woman who seems predisposed to bouts of sadness, is a muted emotional presence, one that seems inscrutable to her 8-year-old daughter. They share moments of connection, with Marion showing Nelly old copies of her schoolwork and reminiscing about the past, but at the same time, she seems a million miles away.

With her mother gone and her father wrapped up in arrangements for the house, Nelly is left to her own devices. She spends her time exploring the woods, and it isn’t long before she runs into a little girl her own age, one who looks surprisingly like her. She doesn’t question it at first – she’s lonely, and it’s nice to have someone to play with. But she soon learns that she has somehow slipped through time, and has been given the precious opportunity to interact with the 8-year-old version of her mother.

They share innocent, playful moments together – were it not for their startling similarities, one would assume they were just a pair of casual friends who meet during summer vacation, developing a bond as bright and spontaneous as lightning bugs, only to fade away just as quickly upon separation. They put on plays together. They make pancakes together, giggling at the mess that somehow accumulates around them. Even as Nelly begins to understand that she’s been spending all this time with her own mother, she’s not eager to abandon the friendship part of their relationship. Indeed, they somehow seem to shift between the roles with ease. They often act like any other pair of 8-year-olds, but their curiosity gets the better of them occasionally. Marion wants to know about her future life, while Nelly takes the opportunity to learn about the one thing that has always perplexed her: Marion’s complicated emotional life. The questions flow freely once they finally begin.

In both Turning Red and Petite Maman, mother and daughter are able to finally understand one another because the complexities of adult emotions are stripped back to their most essential natures. And, perhaps more importantly, the mothers are less guarded, able to articulate the crux of what they’re feeling in childish but no less effective terms. It’s a strange moment, the first time a girl realizes that her mother was once just someone else’s daughter, like herself. The power of fantasy in both these films is that they don’t just know it on an intellectual level, they’re given a chance to see it, and are brought that much closer together because of it. 

Audrey Fox is a Boston-based film critic whose work has appeared at Nerdist, Awards Circuit, We Live Entertainment, and We Are the Mutants, amongst others. She is an assistant editor at Jumpcut Online, where she also serves as co-host of the Jumpcast podcast. Audrey has been blessed by our film tomato overlords with their official seal of approval.

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