Mama is a supernatural thriller. If you don’t believe in the supernatural or the paranormal, if you don’t get a charge at the possibility of ghosts, of something other, that entities can span the abyss and either help or hurt the living, Mama is not going to hold your interest for the 100 minute duration of the film.
We begin with the financial collapse of 2008. A car has been hastily parked on the curb outside a suburban home. It’s driver’s side door is ajar. We hear a radio broadcast reporting the news of the financial collapse and that an as yet unidentified shooter has gone into an office and killed three people: a woman and two executives.
Inside the home, only feet away, a man named Jeffrey Desange (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in a dual role), gathers his two young daughters, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) into the car. His motives are unclear, but he is clearly distressed. His eldest daughter, Victoria, requires glasses to see and, when wearing them, looks all the more fragile and terrified. With his daughters in the backseat of his car (with a vanity plate which reads “N1Dad”), Jeffrey’s driving becomes more erratic It’s unclear where he’s going, but he’s hellbent to get them there.
As Victoria begins to question her father about where he’s taking them, and yelling at him to slow down, Jeffrey loses control of the car. It veers off the road and into a snowdrift below.
The three of them walk into the surrounding woods. The snow is persistent. The girls aren’t dressed for the weather. When the trio stumbles upon a run down cabin, Jeffrey ushers them inside. He hastily makes a fire. While the girls try to warm themselves, Jeffrey loses it down the hall. He has a gun in his lap.
Victoria calls to him to come look. There’s a woman outside. Her feet aren’t touching the ground.
When Jeffrey comes to Victoria, it’s clear he intends to kill her, then Lilly, and presumably himself. He removes Victoria’s glasses, which were broken in the car crash, and tells her to look at an imaginary deer outside. Through her blurred vision, Victoria sees an ethereal smudge lift her father’s body in the air, contorting it. There’s a bone crushing sound and his body falls lifeless to the ground.
Cue credits which show the passing of 5 years in the form of the girls’ drawings, many of which depict the girls playing on the roof of the cabin, in the limbs of trees, far from the ground. The drawings depict them slowly devolving until they are on all fours.
The sequence is exceptionally riveting. So much so, that my expectations were ridiculously high by the time the title credits finished.
Flash forward 5 years. Jeffrey’s brother, Luke has all but exhausted his limited financial means in a relentless search for Jeff and his nieces. We see Annabel (Jessica Chastain) in the bathroom with a negative pregnancy test in her hands. Annabel silently thanks the universe for this tiny mercy. Tattooed, short-haired, heavily made up, she is a vision of rock and roll and you can tell she isn’t ready to be a mom. Instantly, you know almost everything you need to know about Luke and Annabel. Genius.
Luke has just learned that the two men who he has employed to search for his missing family members haven’t gotten their last payment. Luke’s check bounced.
In the woods, after speaking with Luke about the check, the search party finds Jeffrey’s crashed car. Moments later, as the sun begins to set, the two men find the cabin, and inside, the two lost girls.
Taken back to civilization, the girls are uncommunicative, feral, filthy, emaciated. This is all especially so for Lilly who was only about a year old at the time of the incident. The girls are taken into the care of a doctor who, the more he delves into the history and stories of the girls, becomes more convinced something supernatural is at play.
Three months later, with the girl’s marked improvement, a custody battle ensues between Luke and his sister-in-law. The doctor has told Luke and Annabel that he will secure the girl’s custody for them, but he must have unlimited access and the two must move into a case-study home run by the institution for which the doctor works. Luke hastily agrees despite Annabel’s anxiety over the situation. Based on the recommendation of the girl’s doctor, the court rules in favor of Luke and Annabel.
Insta-family and a home? Massive responsibility? Nice…? Maybe not so much.
As the newly-formed family begins settling into their new home, it’s clear that whatever was in the woods that day five years ago, remains with them still. There is singing and playing coming from the girl’s room, even when Lilly is supposedly alone. Mama, it turns out, is a jealous sort. She sees to it that Luke is removed from the picture almost immediately, sending him to the hospital in a broken and comatose state.
Left alone in the house without her boyfriend, caring for two children that aren’t hers and she doesn’t want, Annabel struggles to find her bearings. As Annabel slowly begins to form a bond with Victoria, will Mama let her get close to her girls?
At it’s core, Mama is a film that centers around transition. As human beings, change and transition are inherently stressful, inciting anxiety, tension, and fear. A state of transition, then, creates an atmosphere ripe for horror. You take the financial collapse, the death of a parent, placement into a new home under the care of strangers – scary enough. Add to that, then, the story of Mama: an escaped mental patient who will murder in order to be reunited with her infant child. A woman who, even in death, as a disembodied spirit, will do anything to be with her child. Anything.
Sounds like horror film gold. But is it?
What I love about Mama, beside the short-black-haired-tattooed-bass-playing Jessica Chastain, is that it turns the one thing you should never be afraid of (your mama) into something you can barely cast your eyes on.
What I don’t love about Mama is that as an ethereal, watery smudge, the creature of Mama is terrifying. As the filmmaker’s gradually reveal her true identity and form, that feeling of terror you have felt toward the shape up until that moment evaporates into utter disbelief. It’s a slippery slope – how much do you give an audience, how much do you withhold? In this case, I think Mama goes a bit too far. They reveal the character in an attempt to justify the end, in an attempt to make the character sympathetic. It’s a tough sell.
As with all horror, supernatural or otherwise, you have to believe it. You have to know that this being known as Mama will never stop, it will never relent until it once more has it’s child. Unless you buy this, all of it, Mama as a film falls flat despite a powerful performance by Chastain.