Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2013


If Mama ain't happy . . .

Newcomer Andrés Muschietti crafts an expressionistic take on maternal obsession

Universal Pictures
Director: Andrés Muschietti
Screenplay: Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti and Barbara Muschietti
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash and Javier Botet
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Opened January 18, 2013
(out of four)

Mama has the soul of an expressionistic European or Mexican horror film and the script of the kind of dumb American horror films that come out every January. It has the ambitions of the former but wants the audience of the latter. Let's just say it splits the difference.

This is the latest partnership between fantasy/horror guru Guillermo del Toro and a young protégé, following past successes The Orphanage and Julia's Eyes as well as more mixed efforts Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and Splice. Behind the camera this time around is Argentinian helmer Andrés Muschietti, making his feature debut based on his own short film of the same name (which can be viewed below).

The same claustrophobic atmosphere and smooth camerawork we see in the original short is on display in the feature, but Muschietti also expands his repertoire, superimposing grotesquerie and Munchian expressionism onto a fundamentally simple story of maternal love and loss.

Those impulses serve the film perhaps better than it deserves. Despite a script littered with awkward storytelling gaps and clunky exposition, Muschietti keeps things interesting by pushing toward the abstract. As the characters gradually become enveloped by a kind of surreal madness, they become less important in regard to plot, but more resonant as pieces in a neo-Gothic fable.

The film centers around two feral children - sisters - discovered in the woods five years after they and their father disappeared on a snowy afternoon in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash. Five years after their father killed their mother and drove off with his two daughters, Victoria and Lilly, eventually careening off an icy road and into the forest. They're found thanks to the persistence of their father's twin brother Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who along with his wife Annabel (Foxy Tattooed Punk Rock Jessica Chastain) suddenly find themselves responsible for a pair of daughters completely unfit for normal civilization.

Not that they haven't had a maternal figure in the years since their disappearance. Sure enough, they've been raised, fed and sheltered by a spirit figure they refer to (in whispers, as if she's a secret) as "Mama." Who or what Mama is (or was) is anyone's guess. (Though, actually, that mystery doesn't last for very long.)

After a custody battle between Lucas and his brother's sister-in-law, Aunt Jean (Jane Moffat), Lucas and Annabel gain control of the girls, but only after striking a deal with their psychiatrist - the new family of four gets a house in the suburbs rent-free, the shrink gets full access to the girls for research purposes. Dr. Dreyfuss (We couldn't afford Tony Shalhoub Daniel Kash) fulfills most of the movie's expository requirements, gradually uncovering the background and supernatural secrets of this "Mama," and the girls' years-long survival, and why it is they seem to know certain things they couldn't possibly know.

The girls' presence is toughest on Annabel, who in her first appearance on screen is in the bathroom thanking God that her home pregnancy test came up negative. "Not so fast," says God, as Victoria and Lilly are discovered hours later, dropping motherhood right in Annabel's unsuspecting lap.

The film is built around crisscrossing emotional undercurrents that both parallel and contradict one another - on one side, Annabel's struggle to develop a trust with her new children; on the other, Mama's struggle to let go of the girls she's looked after for most of their lives (and the gradually revealed reasons why she has done so). It makes for richer material than we might expect from a January horror release, and leads to a remarkably elegant final act - an ending during which Muschietti's bold aesthetics completely take over.

Mama has its roots in classic American horror as well. Consider the way Mama - a decaying, contorted apparition, whose stringy hair floats and wraps around her as if it's underwater - looks, moves and sounds. That throaty, clicking sound when she moves around; the twisty, insect-like way she crawls - it's pure Alien. Mama is a xenomorph in human form (or perhaps merely an extension of the queen from Aliens).

I also have to commend the impressive way Muschietti stages many of his sequences - with such complete respect for the entirety of the frame. One key early scene is set up essentially as two side-by-side frames, with a hallway on the left and an open doorway in the foreground on the right. The composition allows for one particularly brilliant pseudo-reveal, followed up moments later by a chilling shot that shows us only just enough.

And what more can one say about Chastain at this point? Here she loses herself in another strong performance, once again reinventing herself in a role that could have been a lot less substantial than she makes it. Annabel's warmth, her uncertainty, her rebellious sense of determination, and even her playfulness - Chastain owns it all, taking a potentially thankless character and making her a vital human presence. She follows Muschietti's lead by going above and beyond the material.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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