Release Date: January 18, 2013
Director: Andrés Muschietti
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Film Pulse Score: 5/10
Director and co-writer Andrés Muschietti created a short film entitled Mama (2008) about two young sisters who face a presence in their home. From that idea, Muschietti – along with writers Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti – creates a full-length feature with master director Guillermo del Toro’s blessing. Mama is based on an interesting concept concerning an entity that is simultaneously protective of and jealous about two young girls whom the apparition cares for when they are abandoned in a cabin in the woods. As an adoptive mother of sorts to motherless sisters Victoria and Lilly, the being known as “Mama” is caregiver, playmate, and possibly disciplinarian. Muschietti creates a certain atmosphere – one conducive to startling a theater full of people with both expected and unexpected shocks. Ultimately, however, the film never really comes together in its execution and we are left with yet another supernatural ghost story that is thin on both plot and character development and relies instead on the occasional thrill-and-chill surprise shock aimed at making audiences jump in their seats.
The film has a terrific opening. Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) suffers a breakdown when the financial market hits recession during 2008. He shoots two co-workers, goes home and kills his estranged wife, and takes his two girls with him on a road trip from which he knows none of them will ever return. Speeding along an icy highway, Jeffrey loses control of the car and he and the girls wind up in a tiny and apparently unoccupied cabin deep within forested country. When Jeffrey exits the scene without killing his daughters as originally planned, the three- and one-year-old girls are left to fend for themselves; or are they?
The film fast-forwards to Jeffrey’s twin brother, Lucas (also played by Coster-Waldau of course), who has spent the last five years looking for his brother and his two nieces. Lucas’ life partner is a small-time rock diva bass player named Annabel played by that newest film chameleon, Jessica Chastain. Lucas has enlisted help in tracking his long-lost family members, and indeed two men find the girls living in the woodsy cabin behaving far more like rabid animals than the sweet princesses we saw them as in the beginning. The eldest, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), takes point and helps her younger sister Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) along in their pitiful existence. After they are found, a doctor in whose care they find themselves makes a deal with Lucas and Annabel. He wants the couple to care for the wild girls in a home paid for by research grants so that he can study the girls’ assimilation back into normal family life. Lucas loves them and agrees; Annabel finds she doesn’t have much of a choice. She’s not the motherly type, but she loves Lucas and therefore goes along for the ride without a clue as to what’s around the corner.
The mystery deepens when a sometimes seen and sometimes unseen entity begins vising the girls in their new home. It is no spoiler to say that the entity is Mama who we discover early on in the film is the spirit of a mad woman who killed herself and her infant child by jumping off a cliff more than 100 years prior. When Mama attacks Lucas – sending him to the hospital for an extended stay – Annabel is left alone to watch the girls and becomes more and more convinced that something or someone is visiting the girls. Some of the most fascinating and creepy scenes involve little Lilly welcoming Mama into the home and into her life as if nothing had changed from their time in the woods while Victoria tries to protect Annabel from Mama’s vengeance, jealously, rage, and paranormal power.
In the end, there is a showdown between Mama and Lucas and Annabel with the girls making separate and different decisions toward Mama, each reacting to Mama’s actions and intentions. In addition to this run-of-the-mill conclusion, the film is filled with numerous clichés and nearly every twist, turn, and revelation can be seen coming by even less-than-observant filmgoers. As great an actress as Chastain is, she cannot overcome a weak script and thriller-by-numbers filmmaking. The girls’ performances fare better as does the creation of Mama by the tall, thin Spanish actor Javier Botet with ample help from CGI effects (and with the voice created by a woman who plays the girls’ aunt in the film, Jane Moffat). The result is a mediocre film with glimpses of something truly fascinating, making it all the more disappointing.
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