Mama (review)

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Mama green light Jessica Chastain Isabelle Nelisse Megan Charpentier

I’m “biast” (pro): love Chastain and Coster-Waldau; trailer looked promising

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

The movie is called Mama, fer pete’s sake. And it gives us Jessica Chastain as a punky dyed-black-haired rock chick who, as our introduction to her, is happily shouting “Guess who’s not pregnant!” to her boyfriend from the totally clichéd “waiting for the pee stick to do its divination in the the bathroom” scene. I figured, This is it for the poor woman. She’s doomed to maternity anyway. Because I already knew what Mama was about: that she and the boyfriend would be taking in his nieces because they’ve been orphaned by teh spooky or something. That’ll learn a rock chick who doesn’t want babies.

But oh! Look how just the teensiest of shift in emphasis turns a flick from the trite and tired — movies are always forcing women into motherhood and making sure they like it whether they like it or not — into something with a whiff of the not-totally-misogynist about it! Well, okay: It’s probably all down to Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Lawless), who stalks around this movie (like she does most movies) like she isn’t taking any shit from it, because even as I hear myself talking about Mama, it sounds like the same old junk. Her Annabel doesn’t want babies but is happy to take in Lucas’s nieces, nine-ish Victoria (Megan Charpentier: Jennifer’s Body) and six-ish Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) because it’s important to him and she loves him so damn much. (This is totally understandable, since Lucas is the Nordic god Nikolaj Coster-Waldau [Headhunters, Game of Thrones], whose almost American accent almost never falters and also who just looks the way he looks. I could have stared at him for an hour and a half and been very happy indeed. But still: a slavish devotion to a man is hardly a radically feminist position for a movie to take.) They get a free house in the suburbs to raise the girls in! That comes courtesy of the shrink (Daniel Kash: On the Road) who’s studying the girls, who were found living feral for five years as a result of circumstances that are honestly fairly absurd and not worth going into, except that they allow Coster-Waldau to play twin brothers, which is yum.

The how isn’t important anyway. The what — Annabel’s instant family and instant suburban lifestyle — would be a dream come true to many a Hollywood lady. But not Annabel. And yet… she doesn’t rebel, either. She copes. I’m not sure it’s there in the script, by director Andrés Muschietti (working from his own short film) with Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti, but it sure as hell is there in Chastain’s Annabel, the grudging agreement to work with what life has thrown at her, child-wise, which is the shades-of-gray reality of far more women than you’d ever guess from Hollywood, where women are either ecstatic moms or longing to be.

So there’s a little bit of ordinary horror in the situation Annabel finds herself in, apart from the more Hollywood sort of horror to be had in creepy feral children who skitter around like bugs or rodents and — *gulp* — the overly protective maternal spirit that appears to have watched over them in the woodsy cabin where the girls were found and seems to have moved to the suburbs with them. Because yeah, Annabel does like the girls and is nice to the girls in a brusque we’re-all-just-pals-here sort of way, but it’s enough to make Mama (which is what the girls call the spirit) jealous.

There is some majorly cheesy stuff going on here, as in the reveals that tell Mama’s story and how she came to be a ghost, but some elegantly simple scares too, really primal stuff involving unknown things that might be under the bed and shadowy things that might be in the closet. Literally. There’s no need to invent artificial jumps and boos when there might be something under the bed. But Mama is ultimately more sad than scary in ways that are about the power, for both good and ill, of parental love… because Lucas’s devotion to the girls underscores that it’s not only women who get attached to and protective of small children. (Refreshingly, Lucas is not required to punch people or blow anything up in the typical Hollywood depiction of fatherly emotion.) And there are risks taken here, narratively and thematically, that make this more disturbing and unnerving than many horror movies of late. Because as scary as the something under the bed might be, it’s far from the worst thing that a child — or a grownup — might have to cope with.

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Fri, Feb 22, 2013 11:37am

Hurrah! Points merely for not doing the standard “I got forced to be a mother” / “yay, motherhood is the only thing for me” trope, more points for apparently getting it right…
I’m hearing suggestions that Chastain’s better here than in Zero Dark Thirty; any comment?

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Fri, Feb 22, 2013 2:56pm

They’re two very different roles. It’s impossible to say if she’s better in one than the other. She’s amazing in both. If you’re a fan of hers, this is definitely worth a look.

Mon, May 27, 2013 5:50am

I’ll watch anything Guillermo del Toro is associated with– and appreciated your review. Also appreciated your comment on Linda Holmes’ NPR article.
I’ve bookmarked your site.