A few weeks from now, Zero Dark Thirty’s Jessica Chastain is highly likely to win an Academy Award for Best Actress (she’s the favorite at this point). At the Golden Globes, when she accepted an award for her work as a CIA operative hunting Osama bin Laden, she was gracious, genuine and humble. She’s on top of the world and nothing, not even appearing in a new release she’s way too good for, the horror flick Mama, can bring her down.
Mama is clumsily written and choppily edited, but Chastain doesn’t have a bad scene in it, and you can see why she chose to be in this supernatural ghost story. Not only did it come with the blessing of Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro, who executive-produced, but it gave an actress who became famous playing saintly, idealized mothers in two 2011 releases — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Take Shelter (as well as a woman desperate to be a mother in The Help) — a chance to play against type. In Mama she is Annabel, a tough-talking guitarist in a lousy rock band whose first act in the movie is to celebrate a negative pregnancy test with her boyfriend Lucas (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Annabel’s hair is spiky, her eyes ringed with makeup, her jeans deliberately distressed. She’s the antithesis of a soccer mom.
But through strange and disturbing — of course — circumstances, the woman who doesn’t want children has them foisted on her. And not just any kids, but two little girls, Victoria (Megan Charpentier), 8, and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse), 6, Lucas’ orphaned nieces who have been living as feral creatures in the woods for nearly their entire lives. Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), the shrink at the “institute” where they are taken after being found filthy, starved and barely verbal (although they say “Mama” a lot), assures Annabel and Lucas that they are likely to readjust. But meanwhile, he’s practically drooling over the research possibilities. In Mama, institute is — as so often the case in movies — a totally dirty word.
The backstory is that Lucas’ brother Jeff (also played by Coster-Waldau), distraught over the economy, killed two colleagues and his estranged wife, then ran off with his daughters, who were 3 and 1 at the time. They end up in an abandoned cabin filled with rats and a spectral presence who resembles a tall bundle of kelp, moss and sticks, sort of a floating East Coast version of tumbleweed (blame Blair Witch for horror’s obsession with sticks). “Daddy, there’s a woman outside,” the younger version of Victoria says. “She’s not touching the floor.”
Director Andrés Muschietti co-wrote the script with his sister Barbara, expanding on his earlier Spanish-language short with the same title, and you feel a feminine and perhaps even feminist hand at work, which gives the movie a spark and intrigue that lingers even in the face of the usual horror tropes. The stick creature, who materializes from the walls like a particularly nasty case of mold, is not earth-bound, but she is maternal, and the audience is likely to give a cheer for her first protective act toward the girls, an angry retort to the arrogance of a coward with a gun. Mama is not all bad, even if the diet she provides the children with — nothing but cherries and moths — is not exactly balanced.
(VIDEO: Jessica Chastain on Her Love of Acting and Her Work in The Help)
How does ghostly tumbleweed have access to cherries anyway? And why did the children resort to walking on all fours — a habit Lilly can’t totally break, even when she returns to civilization — when Mama herself, in the gleefully spooky glimpses we get of her, appears to be a towering two-legged presence? Is it because crawling, feral children speak to the modern parent’s nightmare of a child who misses the pediatrician’s milestones? Certainly the images of weird little Lilly scooting around on all fours are some of the creepiest in the movie. There’s definitely something bold in this story, which raises the issues of societal longing for children and what it’s like to be outside that longing, like Annabel is, as well as the possibility that some children are too difficult to handle. Lilly is, to put it mildly, a handful with some very disturbing habits.
But those ideas are fairly well buried under a heap of trite actions (no one will pity the characters who time their arrival at the scary cabin for nightfall) and absurdly timed bits of exposition (“It’s very likely this coma is temporary!” a doctor says at one point, assuring us this character will have a second act). Even while he’s letting logic lapse hither and yon, Muschietti answers too many of his mysteries. There’s little left for the audience to figure out; the origins of Mama herself are handed to us on a silver platter (well, to be more precise, in various files or dream sequences). The scenes leading up to the climax are rushed, edited as if with a hacksaw, but the ending itself, with Chastain the fierce heroine, has some power. Mama won’t hurt this rising star. It will just introduce her to a wider audience, the one that has no patience for Malick or slow-moving CIA manhunts.