A distraught man named Jeffrey kills his estranged wife and business partners and disappears into the woods of Virginia with his two young daughters, Victoria and Lily. Five years later, his brother Lucas’s search for his family pays off when his nieces are discovered in a remote cabin, having gone feral. Having returned them to civilization, Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel move with them into a house owned by a psychiatric foundation so they can raise the girls under mild observation. The girls bring with them what everyone assumes is an imaginary friend named Mama, whom they believe raised them during those five lost years. But it turns out, as they bond with Lucas and Annabel, that Mama might not be imaginary after all. And she may also be very jealous…and dangerous.
When wearing his producer’s hat, Guillermo del Toro seems to have an affinity for little girls in trouble and the women who are thrust into the mother’s role to save them. In Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, the reluctant “stepmother” was the girl’s father’s girlfriend. Here, it’s Annabel who fills that role. Despite “merely” being credited as an executive producer, Del Toro’s recent obsessions are on full display here…not that I mind, because Mama is a fantastic film, and one of the scariest I’ve seen in a theater in ages.
Increasingly since starting this site, I’ve found that my favorite horror movies work by establishing credible and relatable characters and engaging with the audience on that level. Mama starts immediately by grounding the story’s background in a climate of financial collapse, and when we jump to the present day we find Lucas (an artist) and Annabel (a bassist in a punk band) they’re not living in the requisite huge creepy house that’s so beloved of horror filmmakers, but in a dingy, cramped apartment. (When they do get to the big house, it’s part of a wonderful subplot involving the girls’ maternal aunt’s attempts to gain custody of them.)
Lucas’s concern for the girls is admirable, but by assuming custodianship it’s clear that he’s bitten off something he’s not prepared for; Annabel isn’t even sure it’s a good idea, and it’s hard to hate her band’s singer when she suggest that Annabel leave him because the girls “are not what she signed up for.” It’s a film about adults taking up adult concerns, themes that are handled very well via characterization. Longtime readers are probably aware of my apathy towards Moms (and Surrogate Moms) Who Kick Ass plotlines, and I did experience a bit of a sinking feeling when Lucas was sidelined from the story, but the development of Annabel’s attitude towards the kids was so effective that my misgivings were proven inaccurate.
Another high point of the film was the subtle conflict between the older Victoria and younger Lily–the latter, having been younger when tragedy struck, is entirely loyal to Mama; the former is torn between her new family on the one hand and Mama and Lily on the other. All of these conflicts drive the story home to its shattering, heartbreaking conclusion–one I didn’t believe was possible in a film rated PG-13!
Jessica Chastain–currently part of the Hollywood Hot Shit Brigade as a result of her acclaimed performance in Zero Dark Thirty–leads the cast as Annabel and she puts in a great performance as the film’s emotional pivot point. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that she cut her hair short and dyed it black for the character!) But, as impressed as I was with Chastain’s performance, I was really blown away by Megan Charpentier, the young actress who plays the older Victoria. Her performance is several notches above what we tend to expect from a child actor, and I really got a great sense of her conflicted emotions. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister of Game Of Thrones fame) and character-actor Daniel Kash (doomed Marine Spunkmeyer in Aliens) also put in great performances in supporting roles: Coster-Waldau as both Jeffrey and Lucas; Kash as a psychologist whose interest in (and fascination towards) the girls may not be entirely altruistic.
And I really need to mention the realization of the “feral” Victoria and Lily. I can’t really tell how this was achieved–whether they were physical performances by Charpentier and Isabell Néliesse (as Lily), or CGI, or some mixture of the two. Whatever the truth, I was very much impressed and count it as a major highlight of the film.
The direction by Andrés “Andy” Muschietti (who also co-wrote with Luther creator Neil Cross) was another highlight–his use of the locations, inventive camera angles, and effects work render the film breathtakingly beautiful, most notably during a nightmare scene involving Annabel. Muschietti plays various types of scares like a virtuoso violinist, with jump scares that are truly terrifying, edge-of-the-seat suspense and a delightful creepy atmosphere. The one visual element that I can find fault with is Mama’s CGI: I really enjoyed the filmmakers’ attempts to not fully show her (a great conceit early on in the film is that Victoria only sees her when she’s not wearing glasses, so we only see Mama as a vague, threatening blur). It’s too bad, then, that when she does appear unobscured she turns out to be little more than a CGI goblin, and not an impressive one at that.
Still, with the embarrassment of riches Mama provides us with, that’s a minor quibble. This is a film that delivers fright and intensity with no punches pulled despite its rating and marks its director as an exciting new talent to keep an eye on. Everyone else who intends on releasing a big-budget, mainstream horror film in 2013, take heed: Mama sets the bar very, very high.
Thanks to Bamm.
My rating: 9 of 10.
100 minutes. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Starring Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash.