Mama is hard to describe because the film itself doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a horror story about a ghostly presence taking over a young couple’s lives or a fantasy about defining family? Is it a subtle psychological feature with heavy research into real world concepts or a retread of every jump scare put on film since Halloween?
After living in the forest for five years by themselves, eight year old Victoria and six year old Lilly are found and brought under the care of a doctor. The doctor releases the two girls to their uncle Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel and strange things start happening. The young children believe they are protected by Mama but there is no evidence of anyone else living with them.
Mama is a mishmash of concepts that somehow comes really close to succeeding as a horror film. There is this odd detachment after a very well-directed and unexpected opening sequence that suggests a very different story. Unfortunately, that story is put on the back burner until the third act where things really become interesting again.
The rest of the film really depends on how compelling you find Annabel and Lucas. Personally, I was really distracted by the “othering” of the two young girls. Writer/director Andrés Muschietti and writers Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross clearly researched feral children and bring that concept to life in a very believable way. At the same time, they use a very serious linguistic phenomenon as a scapegoat for horror. We’re meant to fear the children who really need serious medical attention and therapy and that doesn’t sit right with me. As much as I liked Annabel and Lucas–no small part because Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are very good in the film, the vilification of victims really turned me off.
Technically, Mama is very well made. The design of the film is excellent. The crayon drawings on the wall and look of all the living characters is strong. The Mama makeup is a bit overblown and mask-like to read as real as it should, but the movement and animation of the character covers for it. The effects are very believable and the unexpected stylish asides–black and white, sepia, over-saturated flashbacks–look good.
Muschietti just doesn’t know which way to go with the story. The most compelling narrative is the least horrific, but could have easily been a 90 minute slow burn horror in its own right. The predictable jump scares, the far too easily debunked red herrings, and the disjointed narrative bring everything down.
Thoughts on Mama? Sound off below.