Andés Muschietti’s debut is more or less an expansion of his 2008 short film of the same name. It was creepier in just 3 minutes than most studio films are at feature length. With the guiding hand of Guillermo Del Toro as the executive producer, Muschietti’s film marches into theaters. This is a weird and ambitious movie but I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. That said, something this weird and ambition deserves to be seen.
Victoria and Lily (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) have survived in the wilderness for 5 years after the death of their parents. After being found, their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), along with his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), is given custody over them under the watch of the girls’ psychiatrist. After moving into their new home, Annabel and Lucas start to notice the girls’ strange behavior being directed towards some sort of invisible guardian they refer to as Mama. What could’ve followed them home and what is it capable of?
The film balances a spooky atmosphere and jump scares with an emotional core, specifically the relationship between Annabel and the girls and the origin of the thing they call Mama. It brings to mind films like The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone, both of which del Toro has at least some involvement in. I love a good horror story with some human drama. The problem in Mama is that there are so much of both and neither compliments each other.
There’s a lot of story here between Lilly and Victoria relearning social etiquette, Annabel begrudgingly becoming a mother, the girl’s relationship with the Mama creature, the psychiatrist’s subplot delving into Mama’s backstory and Lucas….being there. Truthfully Lucas gets the short end of the stick character/plot wise and you got to feel a little bad for Game of Throne’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau being shoved off to the sidelines multiple times. At one point he is quite literally pushed out of the story before he’s sort of needed again. But the other characters are intersting and three dimensional. The story of Annabel bonding with the girls is touching and I often found myself a little disappointed that there was this horror movie constatnly getting in the way of this really nice family drama.
Therein lies the biggest problem; the horror and the human drama are happening on different wavelengths. The film’s pace is decent but a bit clunky and the tonal change between the girls dealing with Annabel and the Mama creature skulking around is not too graceful. Personally I like when the horror in a movie is branching off the main character’s conflict. Like how in Shaun of the Dead the zombies are more or less an excaerbation of the careless working class schlubs just sleep walking through life. I can see the seeds of a similar theme is Mama (fear of motherhood being personfified by an undead mother dangerously devoted to her children) but it never comes into fruition. That clunkiness begins to neuter a lot of the emotional scenes, including the ending which should be devastating but left me a bit cold.
Don’t let my grumpy pants negatvivity deter you, Mama is a good movie. It’s scary, well acted, really well shot and the design for the Mama creature is conceptually creepy even if the CG used to create it ranges from iffy to flat out bad. I wasn’t exagerating earlier when I said that the scenes between the girls and Annabel are really effective. A whole movie just based on that premise with the same actors would be justifiable and proabably pretty good. There’s the makings of a great movie here, possibly an all time classic. It’s muffled and a bit shabby but more than watchable. Plus it’s way better than we usually get for January fare. Though it never hits greatness, it at least rises above conpetency.