Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

It is Mama’s great luck that it was released in the least-esteemed of movie months. Unlike Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which was similarly shelved for a year, Mama is an interesting movie with invigorating ideas and artistry behind it. Next to most every other movie released this month, it comes off downright bracing, and a movie this flawed couldn’t have caught as much respect at any other time of the year.

Lucky especially because it caught its star at a career peak: coming one week after the wide release of Zero Dark Thirty, the name “Jessica Chastain” suddenly became a selling point.

But for Mama’s first half, neither Chastain nor any other actor is given much to do as the movie does little more than unfold its premise: two little girls are brought to a remote cabin by their suicidal father, who is promptly killed by a vengeful phantom. Four years later, the girls are found; Victoria still has skills of language and social engagement, but Lilly now seems totally wild. Their father’s twin brother Lucas agrees to take custody of them, to the hesitant acceptance of his punk bassist girlfriend Annabel (Chastain). But the ghost, whom the girls call “Mama,” is viciously determined to be their sole guardian, and brings jealous wrath upon anyone who dares get close to the kids.

It’s a shame that I am allowed to describe the plot like this, for the first half of Mama would ideally not explicitly show its ghostly antagonist, and instead focus on developing its characters and psychological tension. Little seems to drive Annabel except for a general desire to be in her rock band and her reticence to be a mother; given her quick acceptance of shared parenthood, her resultant frustration with her newfound role isn’t exactly a pressing concern for the audience.

And there isn’t a moment of horror in Mama’s first half that isn’t suited subtlety. The scariest scenes with Mama in them are when she is least certainly there, and instead Andres Muschietti’s camera lingers on a closet or through a bedroom doorway long enough for us to know that something is there and to dread what it might be.

The CGI ghost itself is hit and miss, and easily works best when it is only seen in flashes — a scene involving a camera flash makes for an especially effective scare, playing like a supernatural reversal of Rear Window’s climax. Instead, we see enough of Mama herself that, far too early on, we get used to her, and understand her too well to be properly scared by her.

Couple this wildly misjudged antagony with an over-insistent sound design that embodies the worst of overdone jump-scare dynamics (i.e. quiet-LOUD-quiet-LOUD-quiet), and by 40 minutes in, Mama seems like a wash.

But suddenly the movie’s plot properly kicks off, characters’ objectives start to come into focus, and they start to really do something about them. When Lucas is hospitalized by Mama, Annabel starts to develop a real concern for the kids, who are clearly haunted by an unseen menace. Dr. Dreyfuss, the kids’ psychiatric, reveals his motives in a way that is kind of dumb, but is nonetheless a welcome change from the “basically nothing” that his character was before.

And though Chastain unexpectedly turns her at-first simplistic performance of a weary and jaded musician into a touching depiction of a woman who learns to be a mother, Megan Charpentier outdoes her (for a time) as Victoria: given precious few lines and little more than an existential threat to react to, her fear and resistance of her unwanted surrogate mother comes through crystal clear.

It doesn’t last. The bubbling tension of each character (and Charpentier especially) are turned into misjudged melodrama by an unbelievably hokey fantasy climax, the culmination of an origin story for Mama that just plain shouldn’t have been in the movie at all, at least not past the point of hints and allusions. The movie proper should ended with an earlier action scene that is far more exciting and genuinely climactic, played mostly in a single take that has Annabel and the girls fleeing across the house’s stairs and halls. It’s a brilliantly directed moment, and all that follows is too eager to resolve the film’s emotional threads at the cost of plausibility — both plot- and character-wise.

Regardless, large pieces of Mama survive as chilling, unsettling horror. No jump scare the movie offers feels so deeply wrong as scenes where Chastain finding her nightmare of motherhood amplified by the thousand-yard stares of her charges, and the central image of a dream suffered by Lucas is disturbing without any obvious reason for fear — because there is no obvious reason for fear. Those moments are the core of everything that works about the movie, and it's no mere stroke of luck that they show much of Chastain and little of you-know-who.


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