Anyone who has read any two given posts on this blog knows I love horror. They also know I’m ridiculously forgiving of horror films with problematic plots. Thus it comes as no surprise that I’m recommending Andrés Muschietti’s Mama, a feature length adaptation of his 2008 short film of the same name.
At the height of the US economic recession in 2008, distraught and mentally unbalanced financier Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) kills his business partners and his estranged wife and abducts his young girls Victoria and Lilly from their home. After accidentally driving off the road due to snowy weather, he takes his daughters to an abandoned cabin, where he intends to murder them before doing away with himself. Before he can go through with the terrible act, however, he is subdued and killed by a shadowy, floating figure, which later provides the now-orphaned girls with wild cherries.
Five years later, trackers hired by Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) stumble across the cabin and discover Victoria and Lilly inside. The girls, now emaciated and feral, are put under the supervision of child psychiatrist Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who theorizes that the older Victoria slipped into the dissociative protective state of “Mama” as a means of coping with having to take care of herself and Lilly. Contrary evidence, such as a twisted and spindly figure depicted in drawings on the cabin’s walls, seem to poke holes in his idea.
The girls are taken in by Lucas, a graphic designer, and his wife Annabel (Jessica Chastain), a punk rock bassist, the latter of whom has no intention of ever having children and who very reluctantly supports her husband’s bid for guardianship. With the couple barely able to pay for their own apartment, Dr. Dreyfuss puts them up in a suburban home usually reserved for case studies. Adjustment is difficult, as expected, with the girls remaining asocial and borderline mute, but most disturbing are their secret and increasingly frequent encounters with an immaterial intruder. It becomes clear that something has followed the girls back from the cabin, and is as protective as any parent.
As a horror director, Muschietti is smart, avoiding annoying jump scares almost entirely, preferring to let horror build through long takes and almost subliminal background glimpses. Writing, however, may not be his greatest strength. While the film’s dialogue and themes are strong, it relies too heavily on coincidence (characters meeting up in the middle of nowhere with hardly any arrangement) and contrivance (no less than two characters venturing into the deep woods at night). These issues were overt enough that another script revision could have caught them easily.
But all the myriad coincidences and contrivances that mar the script can’t keep down the sheer excellence of Mama’s performances. Key among them is Chastain, who took off in 2011 with critically acclaimed leading roles in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter and here plays against type as the irreverent and impatient Annabel. Coster-Waldau is also solid in his dual roles as Jeffrey and Lucas. The standouts, however, are Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse as Victoria and Lilly, respectively, with the former evocatively torn between her attachment to Mama and her desire for a new life—not bad for a little kid.
And I couldn’t finish this without lending a hand to the production design. I wrote about my love for woodland horror last year and Mama hits all the right notes, right down to the abandoned cabin. And while I’m averse to the use of CG in the horror genre, Mama herself is a genuinely scary creation, with a combination of movement and posture unlike anything I’ve seen in a recent horror film.
So perhaps I’m being too forgiving, but Mama’s pros definitely outweigh its cons.