Usually, early in the new year, the films that come out are…well…fairly crappy. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Silence of the Lambs, for example, is one of my top ten favourite movies of all time, and it was so good it held on all year to be showered with accolades during awards season. It’s rare, but just because a film comes out between January and March of a given year, does not automatically mean that it’s going to suck. If you are careful and open to the experience, you can find the diamonds in the rough, even right out of the gate. Mama is one such rare gem.
I’ve been looking forward to this film for a little while – not long, because I wasn’t really paying attention to what was coming down the pipe. The poster image of a dirty little girl hiding behind her mama’s ragged skirts and peeking out at me was pretty disturbing to start, and then I watched the trailer. Top it off as a presentation of one Guillermo del Toro, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have my butt in your seat.
Or, you know, something that sounds a little less dirty.
Mama follows the lives of a couple, Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), as they struggle to raise his nieces after they are found having lived alone in the woods for the past five years. The girls had gone missing with their father, but Lucas (who sort of resembles Boromir) refused to give up the search for his brother and the children. Eventually, his tenacity paid off, and the girls were found, their father presumed dead.
The children were found in deplorable conditions, with little to no memory of their lives before the cabin in the woods. The oldest sister, Victoria (an amazing performance by Megan Charpentier), slowly begins to regain her use of language and makes steps towards living life as a normal child, but the younger sister, Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) struggles with integration into a house and society right from the start. Annabelle and Lucas agree to move into a house with the girls which will allow them to continue being monitored by Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) as their journey of healing begins.
Not all is as it seems with the girls. Annabelle suspects that they are somehow receiving a visitor – one who seems to come and go as they please – and one which the girls simply refer to as “Mama”. From whispers behind closed doors to shadows ducking from view, the feeling in the house gets creepier by the day, especially after an accident lands Lucas in the hospital for awhile. Once alone with the girls, Annabelle has to figure out the role she is going to play in their lives as their temporaily sole caretaker, and find a way to protect them from the mysterious “Mama”, who seems to be around more and more often now that Lucas is out of the house.
As a film, Mama put me much in mind of good creepy ghost stories like The Orphanage and The Others. Despite living in a large open space, sometimes the tension is so high that it becomes almost suffocating. Which, in a ghost story, is freaking awesome! Boxes are left unpacked, giving the house an un-lived-in feeling, even as the sunshine pours through the windows during calmer moments. Young Lilly is practically feral most of the time, and she really only smiles or laughs when “Mama” is around, so that’s positively disturbing, as well.
The important thing to note about Mama is that there is an actual story to it. Yes, it’s a scary movie, and yes, there are jumps a-plenty throughout. But at the same time, it’s a film with a beginning, a middle and an end. There are some things that happen, especially in the beginning, that we’ll never really understand. They were not an intrinsic part of the larger story being told, so some things just happen, and further explanation is not required. What IS required, however, is a reason for the larger tale being told, and Mama provides us with that, and then some. The characters are fully realized, and all of their motivations are clear. Not once did I have that moment of questioning why any of them would do what they did, and apart from sometimes being distracted by how hot Jessica Chastain is in the role of Annabelle (all tattooed and band-playin’), or how incredible Megan Charpentier is as Victoria, or flip-flopping between thinking young Lilly was either adorable or completely creepy – aside from all of that, I was engaged the whole time, creeped out often, and touched even more often.
Mama moved me in ways I did not expect, and I even left the theatre feeling somewhat sad and forlorn. The more I thought about the film in the hours and days which followed, the more it held on and kept me liking it even more than I had when the final credits first began to roll.
The fact that I’m still thinking about it this much is testament to its staying power, and to how much more than just another horror movie it really is. Frightening? Absolutely. But scary with a heart is so much more valuable, and that’s what Mama gives us. Chilling and beautiful, Mama will stay with you because, like the tagline says, “A mother’s love is forever.”