review by AARON ALLEN
Directed by Andrés Muschietti
Written by Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, and Barbara Muschietti
Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse
I've always heard that a mother's love is undying, but in the case of Mama, I never stopped to think how terrifying that proposition could be.
Mama is the latest supernatural offering from producer Guillermo del Toro. Directed by Andrés Muschietti from his short film of the same name, Mama is an imperfect ghost movie that offers its fair share of seen-em-before scares that are satisfying enough but fail to find their footing amidst an unforgivable number of plot contrivances and a narrative that needlessly divides our attention. Then again, Muschietti and his co-writing team manage to drive home a number of quasi-beautiful yet lingering and creepy images, a surprisingly ballsy climax, and a titular creature who is as disgusting, unsettling, and obtuse as she is relatable, understandable, and sympathetic.
|Hush little baby, don't scream a word|
At its core, in a surprisingly adult move given the tween audience Mama's bound to attract, this is a film about the struggle to be a good parent. The film opens as a father on the run abducts his very young daughters Victoria and Lilly and -- in the film's first and most truly tense moment -- abandons them in a cabin in the woods. There's no Necronomicon or redneck torture family in this cabin, but something is definitely watching the girls. Watching and protecting them, with deadly-force if need be. Flash ahead over the opening credits and we're five years later. Victoria and Lily are found, rescued and adopted by their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his punk rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Lucas and Annabel, especially Annabel, struggle to raise the two children who have grown disturbed and feral after five years in isolation. The experience has been so traumatic that they require frequent therapy sessions with their doctor (Canadian-born actor Daniel Kash making an appearance). Annabel sympathizes but makes it quite clear she has no interest in being a mother. Taking care of the kids is a job -- her boyfriend's job, not hers. To make matters worse, Annabel begins to suspect that someone or something has followed the girls to their new home. They call her "Mama," and Mama is clearly not happy.
|The family that fears together....|
Despite its Argentinian origins, Mama seems to take its cue from Japanese horror. Mama is a gliding, sometimes crawling, grotesque specter with hair that floats about her ghastly face as if in water. She is kept off screen for the first sequence of the film, but soon her presence becomes so apparent that she ceases to be scary in the one-too-many series of scare attempts that director Muschietti shoehorns into the script. Once details are revealed and she becomes a character instead of a fright device, however, Mama becomes interesting again. It also helps that Mama is not a CGI creation: she's played under makeup by Javier Botet.
|Mama's gonna make all your nightmares come true.|
Aside from Mama, the film sports an impressive and solid cast. The young acting duo of Megan Charpentier as older, bespectacled Victoria and Isabelle Nélisse as younger and feral, bug-eating Lilly help anchor the film in a believable children's reality. The adult characters, by contrast, find their motives and interests shifting at the whims of a shaky plot or are shuffled off screen for convenience. This aspect of the script is most disappointing and contributes to a dragging middle act, but there is a satisfying arch brewing that will see Annabel finally embrace the love of a child over her own self interest.
On a basic story level, Mama is your stock-in-trade domestic ghost movie with a flawed script, but even though it doesn't manage to marry its fairytale qualities with the scares too smoothly, there's enough creepy imagery and impressive non-CGI creature performance -- not to mention a great turn by the film's youngest cast members -- to recommend that you give Mama some attention.