Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Cinema File #113: "Mama" Review


I mentioned in my review for Ghoul that I've always liked supernatural horror and fantasy movies with younger protagonists. Something about telling that kind of story from the skewed perspective of a child and combining a coming of age tale with magic and mystery has always appealed to me, so its no wonder that I can't really think of a movie Guillermo Del Toro has been involved with that I haven't liked. The latest, which he didn't direct but has his stamp all over it, is Mama, and it is no exception.




Mama is the story of two young girls who find themselves orphaned and lost in the woods, adopted by a mysterious ghostly entity, who are found years later and re-acclimated to society, only to find that their supernatural caretaker has followed them home. This film grabs you from the very beginning and pretty much never lets go. The eerie dark fairytale atmosphere, sacrificed at the alter of leather clad faux-awesomeness in the recent Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters, establishes an otherworldly tone that forces you to feel the presence of the titular creature whether or not she's actually onscreen. The build up to Mama's final reveal is slow and methodical, and creepier than any horror film in recent memory, least of all any rated PG13.


The notion of a humanoid female shambling about with broken bones seems so simple that I'm surprised I haven't seen it done more often. Moreover, until the end, and perhaps even afterwards, we have in Mama a genuinely sympathetic monster. She's clearly dangerous and a lethal threat to many throughout the film, but our first introduction to her, and really her defining trait as a character is her desire to protect the innocent. Being the insane spirit of a woman who was most likely insane to begin with, she doesn't always translate this noble calling in the most constructive ways, but at no point in the movie do you question why the children would be so loyal to her, or even prefer her care to the extended family trying to rehabilitate them. That we can so easily feel for this creature despite it being so outwardly horrifying, and despite several atrocities it commits, is due in no small part to the depth and skill of the writing and direction.


Mama is very much akin to The Sixth Sense in that so much of it hinges on the abilities of child actors that you would think would be too young to turn in such effective performances. Neither disappoints, and I can honestly say that had this film come out in 2012, I might have considered one or both of them for a PSP best supporting actress nomination. Technically Jessica Chastain would be the lead actress, but Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse are the stars as far as I'm concerned. From the first time we see them in the cabin, filthy and feral after five years away from any living human contact, its clear that they each understood these roles completely and committed to them even more so than many of the adult actors. For their part, most of the adults are a little lackluster, with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in a dual role that becomes much less interesting when the bad twin exits the film to make way for the boring responsible one, and Chastain trying to effect a sort of emo punk thing that never really works for me.


Still, overall, any horror or fantasy fan will easily find something in Mama to appreciate. At this point I shouldn't even have to recommend a Del Toro produced movie, as he's one of the few creative minds working today who seems to be a guarantee for quality whenever his name is attached to something (at least when he's not overshadowed by Peter Jackson's self-indulgence). Mama is everything I always want in a movie, executed about as well as I could have hoped for, and I definitely suggest giving it a chance while you still can.
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