Directed by Andres Muschietti
Based on the creepy three-minute short film by the same name, Mama is the latest supernatural thriller to be presented by producer Guillermo del Toro and was directed by first-time filmmaker Andres Muschietti.
A modern fairy tale that explores the depths of a mother's love, Mama is certainly entertaining, especially whenever the title character gets some screen time, but the film does suffer from a few missteps along the way, getting dragged down by poor story logic (particularly in the third act) and some shoddy character development as well. Thankfully, none of these issues is egregious enough to make Mama a total misfire by any means, and when the story does stay on the rails, the film manages to deliver some chilling and fun moments for audiences.
In Mama we follow Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a good-hearted brother and uncle who spends five years exhausting both his finances and his hope while searching for any trace of his missing family who all disappeared one fateful day when his brother, Jeffrey, went off the deep end and kidnapped his two young daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse). One miraculous day a local scout that Lucas had hired discovers Victoria and Lilly living feral in an abandoned cabin in the woods, surviving only on cherries with no trace of anyone else to be found.
Once reunited with his two young nieces, Lucas immediately sues for custody, much to the chagrin of his free-spirited musician girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain, rocking a black bob for the flick), who is less than thrilled with the prospect of giving up her freedom to raise the two traumatized girls. Annabel's enthusiasm wanes even more once she realizes that not only are the girls having a hard time adjusting to their new normal lives, but they're also infatuated with "Mama," an invisible entity who took care of them in the woods that they both believe has now followed them to their new home.
And despite the insistence of Victoria and Lilly's shady therapist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) that Mama is only a figment of their imaginations, Annabel knows that Mama is real and is none too happy about being replaced either, and soon it's up to the reluctant new "mom" to find a way to deal with Mama and still keep her newly formed family safe and sound.
When Mama works, it really works; as a monstrous force, Mama is a formidable presence throughout the film, only appearing as glimpses or hovering about until the film's third act, when we finally get a full-on view of her terrifying presence, which felt as raw and unbridled as her furious powers in this story. Where many recent ghost flicks have gotten their entities wrong, Mama absolutely gets it right, and both director Muschietti and co-writer Barbara Muschietti do an impressive job of transforming Mama from the "monster in the closet" to a real, three-dimensional character by the film's conclusion.
And while many may gush over Hollywood's new "It Girl" Chastain in Mama (and she does a fine job here so that's not snark at all), the real stars are Charpentier as Victoria and Nelisse as Lilly. The movie lives and dies by them, and the youngsters are simply fantastic. Their roles require a lot of physicality and emotion, and both young actresses deliver performances that were beyond their respective years.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets lost by the wayside in Mama, which is where the film falters greatly; we lose most of the male characters by the film's second act, and it almost feels like the Muschiettis forgot they had a few other storylines at play in their script. Or they just didn't feel the need to ever resolve them. We learn that Dr. Dreyfuss has some sinister ulterior motives, but they never go anywhere, and neither does the character at that.
Coster-Waldau is also woefully underused, left to wander the woods during most of the film's final half, and then magically appears during Mama's finale, which felt a bit sloppy considering how integral he is to the beginning of the film.
My other issue with Mama is the film's repetitive nature and the truckloads of exposition we get thrown at us throughout the story- it's almost like everyone involved wasn't sure if audiences would "get" the point of the story (a woman reluctantly facing motherhood and protecting the children she didn't even know she wanted) so we get A LOT of Chastain telling everyone she possibly can that she's "just not ready to be a mom" as if we didn't get it the other 30 times she said in the film already. We also get a ton of flashbacks of Mama's story - which is pretty standard stuff - and of course Muschietti hammers home her backstory over and over (and over) again so I was a bit underwhelmed by that aspect since I had to sit through it about 10 times during the flick's 100-minute running time (I'm probably exaggerating, but you get the idea).
Ultimately, it feels like the story of Mama is a bit bipolar, much like the title character herself; on one hand, there's a lovely story in here about the power of womanhood and a mother's love, which is something that I really responded to (I may have shed a tear or two at Mama's conclusion), but on the other hand, there's also a sloppy and uneven story that doesn't even trust its audience enough to know what a ghost is. As a genre fan, that frustrated me a bit considering there are a lot of great things at play in Mama; it's just that first-time filmmaker Muschietti falters a bit and never quite delivers the movie he promises.
In terms of genre projects that del Toro has produced throughout the years under other filmmakers, Mama falls in somewhere between the highly superior ghost tale The Orphanage and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, which I felt were rather underwhelming efforts. But die-hard del Toro fans will need little convincing to show up in theaters this weekend and should be mostly happy with Mama. For the rest of you out there, however, Mama probably isn't going to do it for you.
3 out of 5