With Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash. Written by Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti. Directed by Andrés Muschietti. Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements. 100 minutes.
MAMA is one of the best ghost stories since “The Others” (2001). It’s not big on gory effects or cheap scares. Instead, there’s a growing sense of dread that something is wrong and it may not be possible to set it right. If you’re willing to go with the flow and not demand the jolts and shocks that pass for creativity in too many horror films, you may find yourself both scared and impressed.
An opening prologue shows us how three-year-old Victoria and one-year-old Lily find themselves abandoned at a cabin in the woods. Five years later, they are discovered, and they’ve gone feral. Their parents are dead and their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is awarded custody. He and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain), an aspiring rock singer, step up to the task after the psychiatric researcher (Daniel Kash) who has been treating the girls offers them a rent-free house in exchange for continued access to them.
It’s not going to be easy. Victoria (Megan Charpentier) seems to be slowly working her way back but Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) is barely verbal, and prefers to sleep under her sister’s bed rather than on her own. What’s more, they seem to be visited by a mysterious and barely seen figure they call “Mama” who was their protector and provider during their years in the woods. When Mama injures Lucas and Annabel is left with the girls on her own, we begin to wonder where the story is going.
However, where it’s going is not where you may expect. Although our focus is the two girls, this is very much a grown-up story. How the girls cope with what they’ve been through is a major theme, but it’s also about how Annabel – a young, tattooed rock singer who is relieved when she finds out she’s not pregnant – discovers a mothering instinct she didn’t know she had. In short, this is a ghost story where we care about the real people as much as the tragic story of the ghost who is Mama.
One can see why filmmaker and author Guillermo del Toro signed on as executive producer. As with his own “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” this is a film about children having to deal with the horrors of the adult world, not all of them supernatural. Del Toro and director Andrés Muschietti are incredibly lucky to have been able to cast Chastain as Annabel, given that she’s widely deemed the front runner for the Best Actress Oscar for “Zero Dark Thirty.” It’s a solid performance, but if you didn’t know it was the same actress you might not have guessed that the red-haired CIA agent of that film has been turned into the black-haired punk rocker here. Likewise the two girls are sensational, managing to act like real children caught up in horrific events. The result is an ending that is simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking due in no small part because Chastain and the girls have made us care about their characters.
“Mama” delivers on the thrills and eeriness, but it does it in its own good time. It’s worth going along for the ride.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.