A rocker chick finds herself stuck with two feral children and their supernatural caretaker in Mama, a good idea for a thinky, melancholy horror movie.
A good idea, but one not particularly well executed.
During the darkest days of the beginning of the Great Recession, a banker-type (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who, we gather, has just killed some of his coworkers and his wife, grabs his two young daughters — Victoria (Morgan McGarry) and toddler Lily (Maya and Sierra Dawe) — and hustles them in his car for a crazy-dad road trip into the woods. The car crashes; they wander around a bit and find a creeky house. The father removes nearsighted Victoria’s glasses, pulls out a handgun and is about to solidify his Worst Movie Father of 2013 So Far title when something dark and shadowy grabs him and pulls him away (as we see in hazy Victoria-vision). Victoria and Lily are now left alone in Creepy Manor but, as they sit huddled together by a fire, something in the darkness roles a cherry their way — first one, and then many.
Flashforward five years and Lucas (also Coster-Waldau), brother of the bad dad and uncle of the two girls, has spent his bank account empty searching for his nieces. His girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), seems to tolerate this expensive means of dealing with grief — cheaper than therapy, she says. A dark-haired, kohl-eyed, tattoo-covered alterna-girl who is in a rock band and lets out a relieved “yes!” when her pregnancy test is negative, Annabel is clearly not expecting the girls to be found. So naturally the searchers, on what is probably their last search since Lucas’ check has just bounced, do find the cabin and then the skinny, dirty, animal-like girls.
After several weeks in the kind of hospital that only exists in this type of movie, the woodland-creature-like Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) and the somewhat more civilized Victoria (Megan Charpentier) are pronounced good to go home by the completely shifty Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash). In exchange for picking Lucas and Annabel as guardians over a distant aunt (Jane Moffat), Dreyfuss gets Lucas and a not-thrilled Annabel to move into a “test case” suburban home so he can study the girls. Since suburban homes = spooky death-traps, we quickly enter the things-that-go-bump phase of the movie where slowly Dreyfuss and then Annabel start to realize that the seemingly imaginary protector the girls called “Mama” might not be so imaginary.
So here’s the good idea: Mama is the story of different kinds of parents and different kinds of parent-child relationships. There’s the banker and his family annihilation. There’s the devoted Lucas. There’s Annabel and her reluctance to take on the parenting role. Then there’s Mama — fiercely, dangerously protective of the girls and possessing of an equally tragic parenting-related backstory. You have children fearful of unhinged parents and parent-types scared of losing children. And as into this nice emotionally fraught mix you have the refreshingly layered character of Annabel. Women in movies usually don’t get to not want children or feel uncertain about how to relate to them. Some mix of the story and the way Chastain the role makes her feel like a real person who has an arc and makes believable decisions.
All of these elements make Mama a good start but not a good movie. The story does nothing interesting with this set-up. In any choice of what to do, Mama always picks the most cliched, least surprising option and then punctuates it with overwrought music and goofy CGI. The claymation-esque special effects that create Mama are particularly ridiculous. She is, I think, supposed to be scary but the many (too many, really) times we see her are laugh out-loud funny.
Mama is frustrating — it could have been something different, something that married the look of a gloomy horror movie with a psychological thriller. Instead, it’s just a glimmer of cleverness that blinks out too soon. C+
Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements. Directed by Andres Muschietti with a screenplay by Neil Cross, Andres Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti, Mama is an hour and 40 minutes long and distributed by Universal Pictures.