Mama doesn’t reinvent the horror genre. But for a film dumped in the movie wasteland that is January you could do a lot worse. A lot worse. Mama has a competent script. A first-time director who is able to rise to the occasion. And a bonafide movie star in Jessica Chastain. So what if it’s only her second best movie in theatres right now…
Mama structures itself like a fairy tale. Two young girls, Lilly and Victoria, become marooned in a small cabin in a forest when a mysterious force kills their troubled father. They remain there for 5 years, protected by an “imaginary” spirit they call Mama. When they’re eventually found, they’ve spent so much time in the harsh wild they are virtually animalistic and are placed in the care of their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain). That’s when the questions of how they survived for so long alone start shaping into terrifying answers.
By far the most interesting part of the film is watching the two girls cope with their new environment. Their slight age gap meant that they had their socialization processes interrupted at very different times. It can be heartbreaking to watch at times, especially the disconnect that forms between the two, one of whom remembers a life before and the other who doesn’t. I could imagine a movie without the horror element being just as interesting. Regardless, the two young actresses show no signs of their age, playing the sisters with remarkable pathos.
Annabel’s arc is also quite strong. Though it doesn’t seem like it in the first twenty minutes or so this is very much her movie. And while she may rub you the wrong way upon her introduction, her character becomes quite endearing in her own way. The relationship that develops between she and the girls is quite sweet when given a reprieve from the relentless horror elements of the film. Jessica Chastain certainly proves that Golden Globe she won last week was no fluke.
Mama does however tend to rely perhaps too much on the typical horror shtick. There’s a lot of loud sudden noises and quick shots of scary faces. At the end of the day I’m not sure what else you would expect. I mean fans of the genre certainly won’t mind and director Andres Muschietti uses some inspired camera work to up the creepiness factor. But while other parts of the movie can show surprising depth, I found the horror elements to be the least interesting. I would have preferred Muschietti pick his spots a little better.
The same goes for the typical gaps in logic that riddle the script. While the story itself, especially the premise, is quite well-written, every now and then you’ll be scratching your head as to why a character seems to want to investigate a creepy old cabin smack dab in the middle of woods in the dark of night. Or why weird old ladies always know everything there is to know about how ghosts are supposed to operate. Tell me, at what age of spinsterhood do you get your ghost handbook?
Mama does provide some nice closure though, and while the ending may or may not divide the audience, I’m happy that the writers decided to buck the recent trend in horror films and avoid leaving things open ended. It’s supposed to be a fairy tale after all, and last time I checked I wasn’t still wondering if Hanzel and Gretel got away from that witch or if that giant at the top of Jack’s bean stock got what was coming to him.
Like I said though, this is the second best Jessica Chastain movie in theatres right now, and if you haven’t caught up on some of the more pertinent awards season fair yet I would recommend seeing those first. But Mama is worth checking out, especially for fans of the genre. If you’re looking for horror with a little more depth than the typical offerings, this is a movie for you.