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Review: Mama (2013)

Mama (2013)

Directed by: Andrés Muschietti

Premise: A pair of sisters is found living in a secluded cabin five years after they went missing. The girls are taken in by their aunt and uncle (Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) but something supernatural follows the girls to their new home.

What Works: Mama is an effective ghost story and one of the better entries in the recent trend of horror films about domestic hauntings. This is the debut feature for director Andrés Muschietti and the filmmaker shows considerable talent. The movie has a very creepy atmosphere and Muschietti and his crew make a lot of interesting filmmaking choices. Lighting is used very well and the action is cleverly choreographed. In several sequences the main characters are placed in the foreground while threats creep up in the background. Mama often recalls the work of Roman Polanski, namely Rosemary’s Baby, with scenes that are staged so that the action is only partially revealed, peaking the viewer’s curiousity and imagination. Mama is also a generally smart and well-acted film, as the movie is about more than just the haunting, and the characters are well written and acted. Often in movies like this an old wrong has to be corrected, making the story a dramatization of redemption. Mama follows this familiar formula but it does that formula very well and then breaks out of it in the ending. This is bold on the part of the filmmakers. The appeal of formula is its familiarity. By subverting the audience’s expectations, the filmmakers challenge how viewers think about issues like sin and redemption and they avoid easy resolutions. This element of the movie works in large part because of the performances by the central cast. Jessica Chastain plays the aunt who has been unwittingly roped into guardianship of these girls and the script provides the actress with moments in which she wrestles with her newfound responsibilities. The development of her character from a reluctant custodian to a devoted parent is convincingly done. Also key to this film are the performances by the girls, played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse. These young actors do a fine job; their characters are presented as survivors of a traumatic experience and they are entirely convincing in that role. The rapport that they develop with Jessica Chastain’s character has a lot of reality to it and that grounds the fantastic elements of the story in something familiar. 

What Doesn’t: The appeal of Mama may be somewhat problematic for different audiences. This is a PG-13 horror film, so hardcore horror viewers may find it unsatisfying. This movie does not have the shocks or the gross out moments that this audience usually enjoys. Mama is successfully creepy but the movie lacks jump scares. Expectation without a payoff can be trying and the movie’s pace gets very languid in the middle as a result of a lack of focus. Supporting characters and subplots are introduced but they never come to a meaningful resolution. Mama may also be frustrating for general audiences, especially in its ending. To the filmmaker’s credit, Mama sidesteps a predictable or formulaic resolution and the ending is the right one for the movie. However, because the ending is challenging it is not necessarily a crowd pleaser.

Bottom Line: Mama is an entertaining ghost story. The movie isn’t quite as tight as it ought to be but Mama succeeds because it is so craftily made and because of the filmmaker’s willingness to take storytelling risks.

Episode: #426 (February 10, 2013)