MAMA Review

Mama is a film that could easily sway in either direction depending on the type of movie you like and the type of film you were expecting going into it. I, on one hand, wasn't necessarily wanting or hoping for a film that was downright terrifying but instead I was looking for something with a little more weight to it. Given that Guillermo del Toro was producing and has delivered acclaimed genre pictures such as Pan's Labyrinth and The Orphanage along with the fact it starred Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) it was not out of the question to expect a little more than what typically might be given in a January release with lesser credentials. If you were expecting a downright thriller though, a truly scary film you will likely be disappointed as Mama is not necessarily even the scariest film I’ve seen in the last few months. What the film does do nicely though is track its story in a lovely progression and documents these developments with inventive camerawork from first time feature director Andrés Muschietti (who also wrote the script) and is performed to a credible degree not only by Chastain but from her supporting cast as well. Mama does a fine job of distracting from its lack of scares by pulling the audience in through the backstory surrounding its main antagonist and title character, but is still able to throw in a good amount of jump scares that will keep the teens who have no doubt rushed out to see this satisfied and more than willing to recommend it to their friends. It may not exactly be the type of high caliber art that del Toro's other projects have earned the status of but it more than serves its purpose and offers a nice bit of haunting escapism in these cold and bitter months when the warmth of the holidays is wearing off.

Jessica Chastain takes on more than she bargained for in Mama.
Writer and director Muschetti originally wrote and shot this story as a short film in 2008. In some ways this can be seen at certain points in the film when the narrative starts to lag and the characters are biding time, waiting for the inevitable. We begin with an introduction to two young girls whose father is clearly in some type of distress after a money-related issue has occurred and has put him extremely on edge. He takes his young daughters, puts them in the car and takes off down an empty yet icy road. The car naturally spins out of control and goes off a ledge and into the woods. All in the car survive and stagger through the snowy woods only to stumble upon a cabin. We all know what it means in a scary movie when people come across a cabin in the woods and there is no exception when it comes to this film: weird things are going to happen. We fast forward five years into the future where the brother of the girls’ father, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), is still holding out hope he may find his brother and nieces. When his nieces are discovered having survived the five years seemingly on their own the now six and eight year-old girls are put through therapy sessions behavior studies to see if they will ever be able to adapt to society and have some semblance of normal lives. The girls’ doctor as played by Daniel Kash (Aliens) makes a deal with Lucas and his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) that if they move into a house that will allow him to continue observation of the little ones they will be able to obtain custody. Once little Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) move in with their uncle and Annabel though things take even weirder turns and ultimately divulge a much deeper backstory than we might expect and a rather ethereal conclusion.

What struck me most about the film though was the way in which Muschetti and cinematographer Antonio Riestra have captured such a dark film, such a specific atmosphere and given it a tone and look that not only helps elicit the mood, the creepy tendencies of the story but also help it to remain a piece that keeps something fantastical about it. The film opens with the words “Once Upon A Time…” scrolling across the screen as if to introduce a fairy tale. In this vein I was always looking to see what parallels might be found between the expanded story, the filled in details and backstory of Victoria and Lilly that were nowhere to be found in the short film that is essentially only a scene that is included in the feature. This element of fantasy that makes its way through the film is what separated this experience from any other complacent horror flick that followed the same outline of every other film in the genre to get its supposed scares. There is plenty to jump about and reason enough to hold the hand of the person sitting next to you a little tighter, but it is never to the point that it feels forced or out of place in relation to the progression of the story. It also allows the conclusion to not feel out of place either. Whereas most horror films suffer from divulging too much about their villain, Mama needs you to become somewhat empathetic with its main antagonist for the final act of the film to really work or have any real impact. Where the film falls short is not necessarily anything the filmmakers have control over, but in saying that, it is extremely tough to relate to bad CGI. The character of Mama is a completely digital creation and not to spoil anything further, but it takes us out of the movie in a distracting manner and does in fact lessen that impact of a conclusion that otherwise could have been a really poignant piece about maternal instincts and a mothers love with characters we come to truly care about.

Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) and Victoria (Megan Charpentier) survive five years on their own in the woods.
The film makes the case that the ghost is an emotion that’s been cut out of time. It is an interesting thought and a nice way of trying to approach the tired gimmick of ghosts as something more than a soul with unfinished business still hovering around the living. The film puts in effort to differentiate itself from other horror films out there, but in many cases it cannot help but fall into those same traps it is trying to avoid. The fact that the film looks great and that the director and his team have created a movie that uses interesting camera work to heighten some of the scares, raise some of the stakes, and get us to pay closer attention is great and is certainly to be applauded as they could have gotten away with less. Still, this doesn’t translate to the film succeeding as a scary movie. It has a fair amount of “scares”, but isn’t really that “scary” of a film overall. I can’t say that I wasn’t interested in the plot though and for that the film does rise above the below average rating these kinds of films usually garner. It creates a real reason, a universal emotion that motivates the villain of this film to be that villain but it never reaches the heights of what it wants to become. It gets the audience invested in the characters and we become more afraid for their lives continuing on the promising path they have rather than simply being scared because we know there is something around the corner. The film can be recommended on the basis that it has engaging characters, but can be torn down on the basis that when the film reaches the point where it needs to go places we don’t expect it instead falls right back into the safety net of a need left unfinished. It almost succeeds in turning the genres standards on its head, but embraces the constructs too closely in the end for us to really separate the two.