The notion of “presenting” a film has become an easy way for studios to market films based on their producers rather than selling the production itself…and tends to be more of a warning sign for the viewer. I was willing to overlook this concern for Mama because I really like Guillermo del Toro, and he does have a track record of attaching himself to some good films. Additionally, Jessica Chastain has had a great track record for picking projects the last few years. But, sometimes it is best to judge a book by its cover.
The story follows Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a man who, after years of searching for his nieces Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), who disappeared, discovers them alone in a cabin in the woods. After some legal wrangling, he and his rocker girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) are tasked with raising them…the only problem is, the girls didn’t come back alone.
I had high hopes for Mama. I love a good scary movie, and the trailer certainly captured that tone. Another main attraction was Chastain as the star. After having stolen so many scenes as a supporting actress (The Help, Take Shelter) and crushing performances as a lead (Zero Dark Thirty, The Debt), I was excited to see what she could do in a horror film. Considering her meteoric rise over the last few years, and coming off a potentially Academy Award-winning performance in Zero Dark Thirty, it is a little perplexing what attracted her to this role. Sure, she is given the chance to play another strong female character, but her character also feels fairly generic, with an evolution that is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a role like this. If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that this film offered the opportunity to do something different, and the opportunity to work with Guillermo del Toro was probably attractive, since she is a savvy actress. Chastain does her job admirably, but unfortunately there isn’t enough meat to the role, and she isn’t enough to save what doesn’t work.
As good as Chastain is, the true stars of the movie are the children, Charpentier and Nélisse, who do an incredibly good job of playing tormented feral children. The way they move, the way they speak, their interactions with “Mama”—you would think they were the veteran actors; they are that good. You totally believe these children had to survive isolated in the woods for years. In particular, Nélisse is almost other-worldly as the younger sister Lilly; for someone who has virtually never acted before, it is amazing. The fear in the movie comes more from the girls than from “Mama” herself.
The biggest problem here is the round peg/square hole attempt at storytelling. The film is the feature debut of Spanish language filmmaker Andrés Muschietti and based on a short film of the same name (which is currently available on YouTube). He certainly does achieve some scares, but the story uses some horrible flashback scenes for exposition and the final third of the runtime largely doesn’t make a lot of sense, other than attempting to achieve a theme or feeling. It definitely feels like a Terminator Salvation-type moment, where the script was re-written for its stars—since apparently the short film was only about the girls and “Mama.” The best part of a horror film is the build-up to the end, and unfortunately this one flatlines well before getting there.
It is pretty to easy to see Guillermo del Toro’s connection with the film, as it lines up with past productions like The Orphanage (which he produced) and The Devil’s Backbone (which he directed) that take the idea of scary apparition and use it as a mechanism to tell the story of a tortured soul. This film is no different, but it has the subtly of an elephant. Whereas The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone had moments of terror but weren’t fundamentally horror films, Mama can’t quite seem to decide what it wants to be. It builds towards being a more traditional horror film, but abruptly defuses most of the scares before they can go anywhere.
The film isn’t without its merits. The first half definitely has some creepy moments, and there are some entertaining performances. Ultimately, the overall story lets the good parts down. I would suggest renting The Orphanage or The Devil’s Backbone if you are looking for a good movie, but definitely keep your eyes out for Charpentier and Nélisse—they might be stars one day.
They say you are only as good as your last film; thankfully, Jessica Chastain has her Academy Awards run going on, because I would imagine she is eager for her next project to come out.
Final Grade: C