Mama Movie Review
Expanded from a sharp 3-minute short, this horror mystery is packed with clever jolts and witty freak-out moments. Argentine filmmaker Muschietti creates such an oppressively intense atmosphere that we only barely notice how thin and underdeveloped the script is. But when we're not cringing from the eerie imagery, it's difficult not to see the contrivances and conveniences that fill the plot.
Orphans Victoria and Lilly (Charpentier and Nelisse) have survived in a woodland cabin for five years, and when they're discovered they are understandably animalistic. But their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) takes them in, fending off a custody battle with an aunt (Moffat) to raise his nieces with his rock-chick girlfriend Annabel (Chastain). Then Lucas is hospitalised after a strange nighttime incident, and Annabel is left alone in the house with these still-feral girls. Their strange behaviour makes Annabel suspect that they weren't alone in that cabin, and may have brought a jealous maternalistic ghost with them. So the consulting psychologist (Kash) starts to investigate the cabin's history.
Oddly, despite the fact that Chastain's personal odyssey is at the centre of the film, most of the narrative comes from the psychologist's procedural investigation into the identity of the woman the girls are calling "Mama". This involves implausible luck as he discovers ludicrously detailed records in dusty archives and then helpfully leaves his documents lying around so the right person can find them. Meanwhile, Coster-Waldau is needlessly marginalised in a corny plot turn early on. And it doesn't help that we never quite accept Chastain as a goth rocker, even though she gives it her best shot.
The film is most effective in the subtle horror moments, as Muschietti deploys simple directing tricks to send chills down our spines. When he's not pre-occupied with trying to make sense of his nonsensical plot or deploying just a few too many special effects shots, his playful camera work and editing are remarkably effective, and he knows how to get the best out of his cast as well. So it's disappointing when the requisite effects-driven finale rolls around, because once the digital trickery begins, it's simply impossible to care what happens. Especially since we've never fallen for the story to begin with.