Mama – A Review

I’m kind of curious how Jessica Chastain feels about this movie being released so close to the Oscars.

It is rumored that when Eddie Murphy was nominated for best supporting actor for his role in Dreamgirls, the release of Norbit while Academy members was still voting derailed the momentum that he had garnered early in the awards season with a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award. While Norbit was a box office success, it was a critical failure with many people finding the movie crass and unpleasant. It is speculated that Academy members were more skittish about giving their vote to someone who had appeared in such a film so close to when their Awards were to be given out. Murphy lost to Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) and his much hyped career revival kind of faded after that. Of course, there is no way to prove this actually is the reason he lost, but it’s become something of a legend in Hollywood – one poorly timed release can kill your shot at the gold statue.

Now I’ve never seen Norbit, but I’m going out on a limb here and speculating that it is a terrible movie. Just a hunch. Mama isn’t a terrible movie, but it isn’t great either. However, much of what works in the movie is Chastain’s commitment to the role and her ability to give life to a character that wasn’t all that developed. So while Chastain might have preferred that the last thing that Academy voters saw her in was not a horror movie that was delayed from October, I don’t think it will do that much damage to her chances.

Mama started out with a lot of promise: A man kills his business associates and his wife and kidnaps his two young daughters, aged 1 and 3. When their car goes off the road, the trio discovers an abandoned cabin in the woods that will provide them a place to hide.  Realizing what he has done, the father sees no way out other than killing himself and his children. However, just as he is posed to pull the trigger, a spirit attacks and kills him, leaving the girls alive, but seemingly unattended.

The film than jumps five years in the future and the girls’ uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Wakdau) has spent all his money trying to track down his family. The girls are finally located, but they are closer to feral animals than children; years of isolation have stunted their development and they have reverted to a primitive state. This is especially true for the younger daughter Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), who was so young when they were abandoned. Victoria (Megan Charpentier) is in better shape, but still extremely damaged. After making some progress with their therapist (Daniel Kash), the girls are released to the custody of Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel (Chasitain). Annabel isn’t exactly maternal, but she loves Lucas and is willing to support him. Once they are home, the girls continue to refer to Mama and as weird things begin to happen, it becomes apparent that they weren’t totally alone in the woods and whatever was watching out for them has followed them to their new location.

Unfortunately, Mama doesn’t live up to the interesting premise that was laid out and loses momentum about halfway through the film. It becomes far too repetitive and while “things that make you jump” can be fun for a while, they begin to give diminishing returns after a while. Mama was based on a short and even though the film only runs 100 Minutes, you still feel like there wasn’t really enough here to stretch it to a full feature. It’s definitely a cool idea, but I found myself kind of bored toward the middle of the movie as the same things kept happening over and over without enough forward momentum.

The acting, however, is pretty fantastic, especially for a horror movie. Chastain carries a lot of the movie and while I don’t know that it is her best performance to date, she continues to show off her versatility and her ability to elevate material beyond what is written on the page. Her evolving relationship with the girls is really a strong component of the film and Chastain sells what is otherwise a pretty broad role with her subtly and her warmth. My only real complaint is that the character of Annabel is a “rocker,” so they have put Chastain in a ridiculous Joan Jett hair style and to make her edgy she wears black nail polish and a seemingly endless collection of vintage rock t-shirts. Even with the dark hair Chastain is beautiful, but she is just a little too refined for this backstory. It wasn’t necessary for the role, other than I assume to serve as a shortcut to reinforce that Annabel doesn’t want kids, but that could have been done in a variety of other ways to better effect.

My hats off to the young actresses who played Victoria and Lilly because they were pretty creepy when needed. The effectiveness of “Mama” relies on their commitment to her existence and they do a very good job of making everything that is happening seem very real. The actress who plays Victoria has to shoulder more of the emotional evolution than the younger sister and she is quite effective.

One of the bigger issues of the film is the eventual reveal of “Mama” and the shoddy CGI doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Like most boogeymen, “Mama” is much more effective when we are only catching quick glimpses of her. Once the audience finally gets a good look at her, it really isn’t all that scary or creepy. With horror movies, less is usually more.

Mama was rewritten several times by several different people and it shows in the story. While the film is shot beautifully and definitely has a creepy vibe, the story that winds throughout doesn’t really make a ton of sense. This is especially true with the ending; while I respect their decision to go in a direction that I don’t think most people would expect, it was all so muddled, rushed and unclear that I wasn’t really sure why what I was seeing was unfolding. If there had been a few less long shots of the closet door and a little more exposition, I think this could have been a much better film. Horror films aren’t exactly story driven, but more explanation was necessary for the final sequence to fully make sense and have the resonance that I think they expected it to have.

Some other thoughts:

  • If Uncle Lucas looks familiar, he is the same guy that plays Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau actually does double duty in the film, as he also (briefly) plays the girls’ father.
  • While I didn’t exactly see the ending coming, I did come up with that solution on my own while watching the film. I realize that makes me kind of terrible.
  • The girls that play the early versions of Victoria and Lily were absolutely adorable. It almost hurt how cute they were.
  • For pet lovers, there is a dog in the film, but nothing nefarious happens to him.
  • Mama continues the recent cinematic horror movement of creepy kids; the most recent films have dealt with child possession, however, so Mama is still a little different even if it generally in keeping with the trend.
  • Fun fact: the voice of “Mama” is provided by the actress who plays Aunt Jean.
  • There were a group of high school girls at the movie who were really vocal in how freaked out they were. It wasn’t annoying – that’s what you expect at this types of movies – but it was kind of hilarious.
  • Mama isn’t a gory film – if blood freaks you out, you shouldn’t have any issues. It’s creepy, but not a slasher /torture porn film.
  • I give Chastain some credit – she actually has been giving her support to this movie. She was on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last week promoting it.

I was intrigued by Mama in the beginning, but it lost a lot of steam somewhere in the middle and never fully recovered. Not worth going to see in the theater unless you are really looking for a horror movie and even then, I’d recommend seeing something else out on video. Jessica Chastain and the girls do their best to keep Mama afloat, but a repetitive script and a somewhat confusing and choppy story are just too much for them.

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