Last month producers Guillermo del Toro and Barbara Muschietti and director Andrés Muschietti dropped by Butt-Numb-A-Thon to talk about the new horror film we'd just seen, a film with the tagline "A mother's love is forever." On the topic of a mother's love, del Toro said, "We wanted to see, can we make love scary, that sort of blind, obsessive love? And anyone who's been loved knows, the answer is yes." Mama is a film about the lasting, sometimes oppressive love a mother can feel for her child, and the ways in which that love can both sustain us and smother us.
Five years ago, Lucas (played by Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also plays his own twin brother) discovers that his brother is dead and his two nieces, Victoria and Lilly, have vanished. He spends every cent and moment he has searching for them obsessively, and finally tracks them down to a remote cabin in the middle of a forest, where they have survived with no adult guidance for half a decade. The girls are savage waifs, malnourished and feral, but Lucas is overjoyed to see them, and he takes them into his new home, provided by the state, to take care of them with his rock star girlfriend Annabel (a transformed Jessica Chastain). At first the biggest challenge seems to be winning over the girls, who are scarred and wild and have no reason to trust the world of grown-ups. But as Annabel finds herself spending more and more time alone in the house with Lilly and Victoria, she feels the presence of a jealous wraith who won't let the girls go without a fight.
Mama comes with its own fully felt mythology, perhaps because the film was developed from a short made by the Muschiettis in 2008 (which you can watch here). Mama's presence, her history, her motivations are intriguing and ample, and this substance is adorned with style for days. Visually, Mama is an impossibly cool film, spooky and stark and really quite lovely.
Coster-Waldau is great in it, playing a character who's almost too good, a patient, devoted man who would do anything for his nieces and his girlfriend. He gives Lucas enough of an edge as to make him tangible, a man who could actually exist instead of this dream uncle. Both of the girls are fantastic - Megan Charpentier is more solemn and thoughtful as Victoria, while Isabelle Nélisse's Lilly is wild and unhinged and vulnerable. They're both incredibly creepy, at first more frightening than Mama herself. Particularly to Annabel, who never intended to have children and who certainly doesn't know how to cope with two wild, damaged kids who became a part of her life in a moment's time. Chastain is unsurprisingly the best part of the film, playing a character planets away from anything she's done before. Annabel has short black hair and thick eyeliner, she's snappish and straightforward and hard and sexy. She's neither sympathetic nor unsympathetic - just honest.
Mama presents two sides of motherhood: Mama's obsessive, consumptive love for the girls that eclipses all else, and Annabel's more reluctant, distant attachment, slowly warming up to Victoria and Lilly with patience and time - and due to necessity. It's an interesting conceit, and to someone for whom the idea of motherhood couldn't be more terrifying, Mama worked like gangbusters.
But it's a pretty uneven film, to be honest. I loved the art design but a lot of the intended spookier scenes were shot through with weak CGI. Some of the twists and turns are really silly, and characters like the girls' aunt seem to have no real reason for existing. It's PG13, and it feels like it, but I don't mind that part. There are plenty of great PG13 horror films out there, and plenty of R-rated films don't really scare me any more than Mama did, which is to say very little. Lots of jump scares, sure, but plenty of atmosphere, too.
The weakest part of the film is without a doubt its cornball ending, both too pat and too ambiguous at once, but even that didn't seriously detract from my enjoyment. Mama's a little silly and a little flawed, but it's a blast, it's original and, most importantly, it carries genuine emotional weight. For a first-time director, that's a real achievement, and it makes me excited to see what Muschietti does next.