Neither particularly good nor bad, Mama is an ambitious film that aims for old fashioned scares, and delivers several surprises, not the least of which is a bittersweet ending, but it also misses multiple opportunities to showcase character and emotion.
Like James Wan of The Conjuring, Director Andrés Muschietti employs low-tech suspense, at least during Mama’s strong first half. It is a wise tactic and produces many fear-invoking moments, including one in which Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) searches his family’s house for an intruder, and another in which Annabel (Jesscia Chastain) approaches a closet Victoria and Lily (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse) don’t want her to open. These and other moments like them are creepy and strongly put together.
Unfortunately, Muschietti doesn’t sustain the subtlety of these scenes. He increasingly shows us more and more of Mama until she ceases to be scary. The effects creating her are strong, but it doesn’t matter all that much. Once we see her, Mama, the character, loses whatever intrigue she still retained.
And there is precious little for her to lose, largely because the screenplay has Annabel, Lucas and Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) spend more than an hour screen time questioning whether or not she exists, even though the audience sees her interfere with the girls’ lives within the first five minutes of the movie. The mystery with which the characters grapple so long is not the least bit suspenseful for the audience, because we already know the answers they do not.
In other words, Mama shows us too much and leaves too little to our imagination.
Yet, this picture isn’t a complete failure, either, mostly because the cast is so strong. Jessica Chastain is almost unrecognizable as a tattooed rock and roller who loves her boyfriend but otherwise isn’t ready to settle down. Coming on the heels of her remarkable performance in Zero Dark Thirty, Mama continues Chastain’s trend of selecting strong roles that complement her talent. The other principle actors, most notably the young girls, are just as good as the movie’s leading lady.
Plus, Mama is incredibly well lit, using flickering lamps and shadows to make us uncertain of what we see and reluctant to gain certainty.
The movie’s plot also takes some unexpected turns that never feel out of place. These twists help hold our interest.
As importantly, the developing connection between Victoria, Lilly and Annabel feels genuine and well paced.
The same cannot be said for Annabel and Lucas’ relationship. We never understand or feel the power of their bond, in no small part because Annabel is basically unaffected whenever Lucas is in peril. It is here that the film most loses its opportunity to develop characters. How much more powerful could this flick have been if we better understood Annabel’s thought processes and internal struggle, if, in other words, we had been able to see her as a person, not just a reluctant caregiver?
Because of a strong cast, surprising plot twists and some cleverly delivered scares, Mama is entertaining enough, but it has flaws, some of which are significant. It is worth viewing, but it is certainly not a masterpiece.