All the things we’ve heard about “a mother’s love” take on a decided chill in light of “Mama,” where supernatural arms of love don’t hesitate to smother and strangle wannabe protectors who horn in on her territory.
The movie begins with an unexpected death and two little girls taken by their father, and what almost happens next in a lost forest hideaway is unmentionable. Fortunately for the girls, someone (AKA something) is watching over them. And this is where their problems both end… and begin.
The father’s brother (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also plays the father) never stops searching for the children and eventually they are found.
His relief is not matched by his goth slash punk slash whatever-she-is (we just know it involves a lot of black t-shirts/eyeliner) girlfriend Annabel, however, who is put off by the changes in location and lifestyle she must accommodate in order to raise these two little girls who mean so much to the man she loves. The rest of the movie is spent tracking her development from “other” to “mother,” and how that pits her against another maternal soul who has already laid claim to the children.
There are some things about “Mama” that unarguably annoying. For example, it’s packed full of “Dumb Things That Happen in Horror Movies Where You Wish You Could Strangle the Characters Yourselves Before the Monster Gets Them,” and I wish sometimes I could just lock up these characters for their own good, so that they wouldn’t go and do anything stupider. A significant portion of the action also takes place in yet another isolated “cabin in the woods.” And the characters often seem pushed about in order to make the plot work.
But there are also some good things. Jessica Chastain might not be entirely believable as a rocker girl despite the clothes and makeup, but she does believably track the progression from indifferent girlfriend to mother figure to these two girls she didn’t exactly welcome with open arms.
(As with at least one other critic I’ve read, I was reminded of the Ripley/Newt relationship from “Aliens,” which elevates what is a basic genre picture to something a little more substantial around the theme of motherhood between survivors. The more Annabel cares about the girls, the more I found I cared about the movie, even if at times the scenes and plot seem cobbled together.)
There are a number of horror tropes that occur in the movie, but “Mama” — knowing them by heart — doesn’t pretend to be original, it simply capitalizes on the expectations to generate scares and sometimes wildly succeeds. For example, in one scene, we suspect that Lilly is playing with Mama in the bedroom, but Muschietti makes us WAIT for it… agonizingly forcing us to track Annabel around the house until we can see (by visual elimination) that there is nothing human left in the house to be playing with Lilly. Mama is kept tantalizingly out of view (or at least masked by shadow) for the longest time. There’s also a scene with boxes that plays with expectation.
Visually, Mama herself is unsettling — a mix of computer imagery and an actor with an ailment called Marfan’s Syndrome, which results in distortions and elongations of the human body. Both Mama’s appearance and her methods of locomotion are effectively eerie.
But the movie’s heart really revolves around the little girls Victoria and Lilly. Feral kids absorb the traits and behavior of whatever beasts raised them, and when the girls are first found in the woods, they don’t move like people. Watching them scuttle about and play, I honestly felt like I was watching something more animal than human. Victoria, the older bespectacled girl who was better socialized before heading “into the wild,” eventually finds her way back to some semblance of humanity, recalling many things that she had merely forgotten; but poor Lilly, never being raised by people in the first place, seems hopelessly trapped between worlds. Victoria’s growing attachment to Annabel (versus Lilly’s fervid distrust of her) only drives a wider rift between the girls, and it’s clear that things will get ugly before they get better… if things getting better with Mama is even a possibility.
Eventually Annabel resolves the mystery surrounding Mama, and there’ s a final climactic confrontation of “mommo y mommo.” The ending seems like an attempt to split the difference between the sort of resolutions we’re used to; in that sense, “Mama” is more original in its conclusion than in other aspects, but is it a fulfilling resolution? Even as a producer, Del Toro’s trademark of melding beauty with horror might or might not work here. I found myself strangely indifferent, while simultaneously haunted by the ways we form attachments to people and things just out of familiarity, and how difficult it can then be to break those ties even when it might be in our best interests.