Parents should go to any length to protect their children. It’s not just love. It’s a biological imperative. But sometimes emotions are no match for biology, and these emotions get horribly twisted. There are some parents who kill their children and believe that this is protection. These parents find some sick, awful salvation in death. Mama hints at going to this dark, disturbing place, but ends up playing it safe. The movie dances around what it means to protect and neglect a child, and the film deserves credit for attempting to stretch beyond, “It’s good to love and nurture innocent kids.” Unfortunately, the film is bogged down in poor pacing and pushing a crummy monster rather than letting the strong performances and cinematography convey an unsettling subtext.
Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are stranded in a cabin for five years after being kidnapped by their insane father, and then abandoned when he’s killed by a phantom. Their uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) never stops looking for them, and when they’re finally discovered, the children have become feral. They also have become dependent on a mysterious figure they call “Mama”. Lucas is eager to take care of the kids, but his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) is less-than-thrilled at the prospect of being a surrogate mother. From there, Mama frantically jumps around trying to uncover the mystery behind the girls’ ghostly caretaker, creating a bond between the girls and Annabel, and still trying to scare the audience.
Director and co-writer Andrés Muschietti never finds the balance he needs. Mama starts out fairly strong as it brings a strong blend of melancholy and creepiness to the lost little girls who have been returned to the real world. They’re burdened with the ultimate helicopter parent who is perhaps more dependent on the children than they are on her. But rather than trust his knack for creating tone and strong use of symbolism, Muschietti is constantly resorting to the cheap jump scare. Mama’s favorite hobby seems to be playing with the kids, being jealous, and waiting to scare the hell out of Annabel. Strangely, despite having supernatural powers, Mama never rushes to simply steal back the kids from Lucas and Annabel.
The investment in Mama could work a bit better if the monster design wasn’t so atrocious. Some CGI is necessary to make Mama fly and do other ghostly stuff, but in close-ups and more grounded movement, the CGI makes the character look laughable. Furthermore, the design seems to revolve around Mama having far too many skeletal joints. Perhaps her physically broken body symbolizes her broken spirit, but the result just looks funny and distracting. Nothing about the character design works. Even her voice sounds like a goat vomiting other goats. Mama is a strong concept but the execution of the monster falls flat.
The same problem of execution plagues the pacing. Taken individually, the scenes in Mama are quite strong. The brooding cinematography makes great use of tracking shots, deep focus, and knowing where to place Mama even though her reveal never pays off due to the poor creature design. The performances, especially from Charpentier and Chastain, do far more for the story’s power than Mama’s ghostly presence. These relationships get to the heart of the story, and stretch beyond Annabel’s fear of motherhood. But the scenes are awkwardly placed together, so it seems like Annabel suddenly flips from begrudgingly accepting the kids to actively caring for them. Perhaps their bonding would be closer if she wasn’t constantly being annoyed by a ghost, or if we didn’t have to spend time with the girls’ therapist (Daniel Kash) whose only purpose is to explain the mystery behind Mama.
Mama misses the true horror of its plot in favor of conventional, familiar horror that isn’t very scary. The scariest and saddest moment in the film has nothing to do with Mama. It’s when Victoria looks up at her insane father and notices the gun in his hand. We know that he’s planning to shoot her. And she looks at the gun and simply asks, “What is that?” We can’t comprehend what would make a father want to kill his innocent 3-year-old daughter, and she can’t comprehend what he has in his hand. Rather than live in these kinds of moments, Mama is content to simply startle its audience rather than haunt them.