The young are impressionable. Just as a child who grew up in a racist household will start spouting derogatory terms before they can multiply; a child raised in an unorthodox environment wouldn't flinch at the presence of certain figures that chill others to the core. An exploration into the power of kindness toward children and the importance of a loving parental figure, Mama plays a tug of war battle between its desire to creep out its viewers and its attempt to make its point clear. Housing a few uneasy moments and some adorable lead children, Mama struggles to push either of its cinematic goals to the forefront.
When we join the action in Mama it's been five years since young Victoria and Lilly disappeared along with their father, after he cowardly shot his business partners and the girl's mother. Their Uncle Lucas has spared no expense in those five years searching for his missing family members, hoping they are still alive. On the day of his first payment to the men he has doing the legwork bounces, an unexpected discovery is made. Victoria and Lilly are found alive in an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods. Encrusted in mud, living off cherries and scampering around like twisted woodland creatures; the feral girls are brought back to the world of the civilized. After careful evaluation, it's determined they are fit to live with their Uncle and his girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Annabel is there to support Lucas, but playing the mother is not the ideal life this independent rocker chick had in mind. When Lucas winds up in the hospital, the un-motherly Annabel is forced to care for the girls on her own. When it seems that Victoria and Lilly are receiving visits from an unknown caller, the question of how these little children survived on their own for so long, sprouts some new mysteries.
There are no surprises in terms of a story line in Mama. Even if you couldn't guess from the trailer, it's laid out plain and simple in the first few minutes of Mama: Victoria and Lilly were raised by a ghost. Most ghost-centric films are built on the premise that there's a huge mystery that needs to be solved and you never really know the whole truth until the movie is about to end. Mama may contain a few mysteries in need of solving in order to uncover a proper ending, but its straightforward delivery makes for an easy pill to swallow. Offering up as much information as it does from the start, Mama lets the audience enjoy the chills and jumps; this is an open invitation to be scared. Typical fright features will follow the same beats in their delivery, but at the same time the audience is wrapped up in trying to solve the mystery first so they can turn to their friend and look smart. Brushing the Scooby-Doo antics to the side creates a slightly more macabre setting.
On the other hand, Mama plays too lightly when it comes to its moral core. The tragedy of Victoria and Lilly moves the movie along, but in actuality the film's main protagonist is Annabel. This is the story of a woman who grows up and accepts some responsibility due to these odd circumstances. One would sumise that Annabel is such an aloof, anti-social personality because she herself was not loved enough by her parents, but that fact is not explored at all. Frankly, it's practically an assumption on my part, but a fairly obvious one I think. Sticking with the same open and easy presentation in terms of the ghostly side of the picture, I appreciate that extra running time wasn't stuffed into the story to expose factors a viewer can pick up on without a cliché plot twist. Still, Mama is obviously trying to speak about the developmental growth of children and the power that love, or the lack-thereof, plays in their upbringing; to skimp out fully exploring that thesis feels a little like a cop-out.
My biggest gripe with Mama comes in the form of Annabel herself. Besides the fact that I just don't buy Jessica Chastain as the snarly, Joan Jett rocker no matter how many flimsy tattoos you give her under the short black wig; her character doesn't fit the environment at all. Lucas may be the free spirited type with the freelance gig as an illustrator, but he and Annabel don't fit as a couple. As the dark and handsome European style loner type, Lucas lives in a world of turtlenecks and overly serious tones. Show me the same man in real life and the tomboy bass player in a band with spiky haired teenagers wearing all black is not standing next to him as a companion. Your character doesn't have to be an EMO kid to illustrate a personality that doesn't want to have children. A scornful, take no shit business exec could deliver that same image and fit the story better than grumpy ole’ Annabel.
The first thing I did when I got home after seeing Mama was to look up the two minute short film that inspired the feature (watch it here: Mama) . A simple short scene that is recreated in the movie, I was astounded as to how much creepier Mama was in the short compared to her presence on the big screen. Ethereal effects were used in the short to portray her other worldliness, but Mama was a much more realistic and down right frightening creature than her big budget counterpart. It makes sense to take full advantage of a large budget to enhance your main selling point. But the fancier, glossy Mama is no match for her more frantically disturbing precursor. It's amazing what computers can help create these days, but we need more lifelike terrors on the screen to deliver some authentic frights.
The dark corners and decaying settings all add to the unapologetic world the characters of Mama inhabit, but there will still be some people who are put off by its slightly controversial outcome. Though, if it's just the scares you want and you're easily frightened into jumping out of your seat when a simple, loud commercial comes on, Mama won't disappoint in providing fear to fuel your next theater experience. Mama’s ability to look past lengthy plot devices is both the strongest and weakest aspect it has to offer leaving a decent, yet uneven film as the final product.