The first I heard about Mama was when its trailer played, rather misplaced I felt, before Zero Dark Thirty (yes, I know Jessica Chastain is in both, but that’s where the similarities end). I thought the trailer was scary and I was looking forward to the film but unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to expectations.
Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nellise) were just 3 and 1 respectively when they were abandoned in a derelict cabin following their father’s breakdown. Alone in the wilderness for 5 years, they are finally found, feral, terrified and confused. They are subsequently released into the care of their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), who soon realise that is not just psychological trauma plaguing the girls. Having retained her language skills, Victoria reveals to her psychiatrist that her and Lily were by no means alone in the cabin; they were protected by a spirit known as ‘Mama’ who happens to be extremely attached to them and jealous of their new family.
There are lots of good things about Mama, Charpentier and Nellise for one carry the film, especially Nellise, who’s Lily is almost as creepy as Mama herself. And Mama is scary. A shadowy figure with gnarled limbs and bony, twig like fingers, she epitomizes the monstrous mother, obsessively protecting her children while simultaneously satisfying her maternal urges above all else. Unfortunately the bad outweighs the good. The story of maternal instinct surviving past death is a well-worn classic but Mama adds very little to the genre. Many of the ‘subplots’ do nothing for the remainder of the film and some are forgotten about completely. For example, the aunt who is advised by social services to spy on the family and try to take pictures of the girls being abused (what?!) and the ghostly dream Lucas suffers (by which I mean we suffer). Chastain is too good an actress for this script; we can tell that she is not ready for kids, you don’t need to keep telling us! Similarly the psychiatrist’s case study which serves to explain to the viewer exactly what is happening. Excuse me but what’s wrong with a little subtlety in ghost stories? Any remaining tension is destroyed by comical elements which completely miss the mark.
Mama is helped by strong leads and a genuinely creepy ghost. It’s let down by simply trying to explain everything. Mama reminds me of the recent Woman in Black which had similar difficulties. It’s a ghost story guys, there’s allowed to be a few mysteries.