Movie Review: Mama
By Matthew Huntley
January 22, 2013
Lucas wants to parent the girls, despite the reservations of Annabelle, who’s admittedly not the mothering type. The psychiatrist assigned to the case, Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), says he’ll recommend to the judge that Lucas gain custody of his nieces instead of their Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) so long as he and Annabelle agree to raise them in a house owned by the doctor’s institute, rent-free. The house is used for case studies and there’s something about Victoria and Lilly’s situation that Dr. Dreyfuss finds intriguing. Heck, if being a psychiatric case study means living rent-free in a huge house, sign me up.
As you no doubt guessed, when the girls move in with Lucas and Annabelle, strange phenomena of the supernatural kind start to occur. Annabelle sees ghoulish figures and hears a woman’s voice singing lullabies. She’s also warned by Victoria, “Don’t open the closet.” Dr. Dreyfuss notices Victoria, who’s regained most of her vocabulary and socialization skills, looking off at something during their sessions. Poor Lilly, on the other hand, is pretty much out to lunch. She still insists on sleeping on the floor, and when she’s not feeding on cherries or butterflies, she’s chewing on her sister’s hair.
Mama delivers a lot of things we’ve come to expect from the genre, and even though the story may not be exactly inspired, it makes for solid horror fare, mostly because of the smart characters and good performances. Jessica Chastain, I’m convinced, can play just about any part and make it distinct and convincing. Consider her recent repertoire: a tough Mossad agent in The Debt, playing the younger version of Helen Mirren; the tolerant and caring wife of a distraught man who has apocalyptic visions in Take Shelter; a grieving mother in Tree of Life; a slightly scatterbrained Southern housewife in The Help; and, most recently, a determined CIA agent on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. All of these roles have almost nothing in common and Chastain is able to make each one of them fully realized. The woman has range.
But the movie’s younger actresses deserve just as much credit. As Victoria and Lilly, Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse don’t simply fulfill the thankless “helpless child” roles. They have presence, and typically when children’s performances are this strong, it’s because the director trusts them and lets them perform without over-directing. Rather than relegate Charpentier and Nélisse to be the token screamers and victims, he gives them meaningful scenes with weight.
Horror tends to be one of the lesser respected movie genres because the underlying material is often viewed as silly or unimportant. Oftentimes, it doesn’t even seem to have the respect of the filmmakers, who simply throw the same old conventions and clichés at the screen and hope some of them will stick. Muschietti is different. He actually cares about telling an effective story that’s not just about scares, but also emotion. He co-wrote the screenplay with his sister Barbara along with Neil Cross, adapting it from his own short film of the same name. He’s obviously put a lot of effort into this project and his skillful techniques and patience pay off. No doubt it was these qualities that caught the attention of Guillermo del Toro, who, along with executive producer, is given a “presents” credit. del Toro tends to knows good filmmakers when he sees them and the Muschietti siblings are his latest two.