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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 25, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 4
Haunting Mama an emotionally ethereal thriller
Arts & Entertainment
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Haunting Mama an emotionally ethereal thriller

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MAMA
Opens January 18


For five years, sisters Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lily (Isabelle Nélisse) have been missing - their father, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), abducting them after committing a series of shockingly violent acts. Long presumed dead, they have been found in the middle of the woods holed up in secluded cabin, apparently eating nothing but cherries and coming up with a bizarre fantasy involving a malevolent parental figure they adoringly nicknamed 'Mama.'

Their Uncle Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) has taken them in, assuming guardianship alongside his hard-rocking, bass-playing girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). Things are difficult, the girls having trouble assimilating back into normal everyday life. Victoria, being the oldest, remembers what it was like to have real parents - to have an adult looking out for her - but for Lily, being out of the woods and away from 'Mama' is both alien and horrific. As for Annabel, she was still in the throes of dreams involving musical superstardom, being a mother the last thing in the world she felt prepared for.

Those are the basics of what is going on in Mama. To know more - and that includes taking a peak at the film's trailers or commercials, so don't do it - wouldn't be fair, this film far too easy to reveal the secrets of. Yes, something supernatural is going on; that pretty much goes without saying. But how this presence affects Annabel and Lucas, the hold this entity has over Victoria and Lily - these things are best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible, the twists and turns leading up to a shockingly emotional climax that's close to wonderful.

Not that the movie makes all the right moves. Based on their acclaimed short film, co-writers Andrés and Barbara Muschietti (Andrés also directed), working alongside fellow writer Neil Cross (creator of BBC's 'Luther'), do a great job of developing the family dynamic, in showing how Annabel must evolve alongside Victoria and Lily in order to become the motherly protector they so desperately need. It's the other stuff - the material dealing with the pompous psychologist (Daniel Kash) looking to make his name chronicling the girls' story, or the bits involving Lucas' sister-in-law Jean (Jane Moffat) - where problems arise. These elements drop into cliché far too easily and too often revel in the cheap scares and maudlin theatrics the rest of the film eschews.

Thankfully the good stuff outweighs the bad to such an extent I'm able to forgive these, and a few other, missteps. Muschietti crafts a Polanski-like atmosphere recalling Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby, he and cinematographer Antonio Riestra (Black Bread) showcasing a series of eerie elongated takes where the frame is never completely visible and what is going on just to the side of the periphery is enough to send shivers down even the heartiest of spines. They use their sets to perfection, achieving a visual majesty that had me shifting uncomfortably in my seat while my palms slowly sweated.

Even better, the filmmakers aren't afraid of the material and don't feel the need to coddle their audience or deliver comforting emotional platitudes. They take things to their ultimate breaking point, going with an otherworldly finale that's one part Tim Burton and two parts Guillermo del Toro (which obviously makes sense, considering the latter is an executive producer on the project). The Gothic, unsettling fairy tale-like atmosphere, driven by Fernando Velázquez's (The Impossible) elegant, Danny Elfman-esque score, is close to sublime, the insidious final images more than enough to make up for the film's anachronistic, slightly pedestrian shortcomings.

There's more to be said but, as I've already stated, to know too much about the specifics of Mama would be to ruin the haunting, atmospheric highs levied by the climax. Andrés Muschietti shows talent, both behind the camera and as a writer. The same goes for his sister, Barbara, and I'm incredibly eager to see what the pair might have up their respective sleeves next. This movie delivers the goods and goes for the jugular, and I have a feeling this is one ending I'm going to be debating, discussing, and savoring for the rest of 2013.

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