2013 // Spain - Canada // Andrés Muschietti // January 15, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Wehrenberg Ronnies 20 Cine)
[Note: This post contains minor spoilers.]
It’s a tough call as to whether there is a salvageable, halfway-decent horror flick lurking somewhere within the dismal boundaries of Mama, but the film would almost certainly need to be demolished and rebuilt from scratch in order to reveal it. The feature exemplifies quite a bit that’s banal and irksome about contemporary horror filmmaking. There’s the over-reliance on repetitive, lazy jump-scares, a horror “method” that migrated from Asian to Western films well over a decade ago and is now applied with absolutely no sense of artfulness or restraint. There’s the colorless-to-crummy performances, which do not in any meaningful way reflect how actual human beings would behave if placed in the film’s circumstances. (This holds even for the lead actor, the suddenly-ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, who is almost unrecognizable in a short black wig and "rock" wardrobe.) Then there is the film’s worst sin: Its absolute mess of a screenplay, larded with ridiculous dialogue and festering narrative missteps.
It’s a bit of a shame, because there is a nugget of potential in Mama. A great horror film is waiting to be made based on the “feral child” folk tradition, perhaps something akin to François Truffaut’s The Wild Child by way of David Cronenberg. Mama is absolutely not that film, but Argentinean writer-director Andrés Muschietti at least seems to have an appreciation for the disturbing potential of such a story. The film is at its unsavory, discomfiting best when it dwells on the fragility of adults’ efforts to civilize children, and on the arbitrary nature of moral urges that are assumed to be intrinsic to humankind. To the film's credit, it doesn’t blink when it wanders into some harrowing, even downright appalling, places. The first ten minutes of Mama feature an unhinged man who intends to shoot his oblivious three-year-old daughter in the head, and the rest of film offers some comparably unsettling situations. The feature’s climax posits that if a child suffers severe psychological trauma between ages one and five, they may be a total lost cause, and no amount of tender loving care will make them “normal” again. It’s rough stuff, but no one ever suggested that the aim of a horror film is to make the viewer comfortable.
If only Muschietti and his co-writers (sister Barbara and Luther creator Neil Cross) had the discipline to leave out the supernatural elements and explore the chilling possibilities in a story about two little girls abandoned in the woods and discovered years later. That is where Mama seems to be heading at first, as fugitive wife-killer Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) hustles his fearful young daughters Victoria and Lilly into the snowbound wilderness of rural Virginia, and eventually to a remote, run-down cabin. There, Jeffrey’s murderous plans are abruptly thwarted by a sinister ethereal entity (Javier Botet) that materializes out of the shadows. This is about the point where it becomes unfortunately apparent that Muschietti intends to cram a vengeful ghost story into his feral children story—and nothing brings out the unimaginative side of a horror filmmaker like a vengeful ghost story.
Five years later, a backwoods search party employed by Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) stumbles upon the cabin, where it is discovered that the girls are now filthy, scrawny, animalistic CGI effects. Three months in the care of state psychiatrists is evidently all that is needed to restore eight-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) to relatively well-groomed normalcy, but six-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) is another matter. Having never learned to talk, she isn’t much interested in doing so now that she’s back in the bosom of central heating and Nick Junior. Standard kindergartner play isn’t her strong suit: when she’s not skittering around creepily on all fours, she’s devouring the black moths that mysteriously proliferate around the girls. None of this dissuades Lucas from his plans to adopt Victoria and Lilly, although his contentedly child-free girlfriend Annabel (Chastain) is less than enthusiastic about the assumption of such a responsibility. And that’s before she learns about the baleful spirit from the cabin, which the girls call “Mama" and which has apparently followed Victoria and Lilly back from the wilds.
The film presents "Mama’s" backstory as though it were an absorbing puzzle whose solution will herald some vital turning point in the plot, but nothing of the sort happens. Most of the second half of Mama consists of Annabel following the breadcrumbs left by child psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), who is in turn a step or two behind the viewer in his understanding of what is unfolding. There’s little in the screenplay that asks for the viewer’s emotional or intellectual engagement, and as a result, the film just sort of muddles along. Annabel mopes about in an exasperated way, Victoria furrows her brow and glares, and "Mama" pops up every seven or eight minutes like a spring-powered Dracula in a cheap funhouse. Even on the most exploitative level, the film flops: Mama is strictly PG-13 violent, and none of the characters are garish or unlikeable enough for the viewer to get a sadistic thrill out of watching them blunder into the clutches of an undead monster. (Annabel’s baffling compulsion to open doors that any sane person would be nailing shut doesn’t prompt much but eye-rolling.)
Narrative problems abound in Mama, which is overflowing with convenient turns, frustrating cul-de-sacs, and a laughable understanding of how social service agencies function. In one particularly egregious case of storytelling fail, a sidelined Lucas receives a plaintive vision from his dead brother’s spirit, in an apparent attempt to draw him back into the story and prod him to assist in the unraveling of "Mama’s" origins. This leads to... nothing. Lucas makes an urgent journey into the forest at night, and is then forgotten until he shows up suddenly at the film’s climax, at which point he is hastily sidelined again so that Annabel can have an obligatory (and ambiguously written) one-on-one confrontation with "Mama".
These sort of plot fumbles are distracting on their own, but the film further annoys with its obnoxious regard for motherhood as the most sacred and worthiest of all human endeavors. It’s unfortunately familiar sexist nonsense, but what’s novel is Mama’s reactionary disdain for Annabel and Lucas’ childless, hipster-lite urban lifestyle. It’s not enough that Annabel is scolded for preferring band practice and bourbon shots to diaper duty, or that her lack of maternal rapport with Victoria and Lilly is portrayed as a deep character flaw that needs correction by dire supernatural means. The film also sneers at the very notion that she and Lucas could raise two children in (gasp) an apartment, one filled with artwork and music, no less. Narrative potholes are one thing, but even a stellar screenplay would have trouble recovering from that sort of clueless classism and cultural contempt.