Movie Review: 'Mama' (2013)

Guillermo Del Toro, the mind who brought the world, the visually disturbing Pan’s Labyrinth was the highly publicized producer behind this frightener. If you’ve seen just a little of the aforementioned film, you know that he is an expert in unnerving imagery. The same caliber of terrifying graphics won’t be found in Mama. What the film does succeed in; is its manner of storytelling and with its performances which, manage to push the film into a higher tier.

Mama tells the story of an uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who takes in his long lost nieces after they were abandoned in the woods. With the girls having turned feral for the most part, his reluctant girlfriend (Jessica Chastain) is even more hesitant to be a potential mother figure to them. The set-up is interesting; the way in which it is executed is a letdown.

As hinted in the trailers, the film heavily relies upon a seldom seen, supernatural entity that is presented in a rather empathetic way, despite the questionable behavior it exhibits towards the girls. The narration struggles to find “mama” guilty of anything, when she is clearly deranged.

There are some surprises and viewers will be relieved to see that everything was not given away in the trailers. The human story that it tells with Chastain’s character, Annabel, struggling to connect with the girls is an interesting commentary on the social perception of women as care givers and their natural maternal instincts.

Annabel has to dig deeper than most female protagonists. While her boyfriend, the girl’s uncle, is emotionally caring, compassionate and patient with the kids, she struggles. It is a different take on the clichรฉ emotional sterility that typically shadows the portrayal of male characters.

The dynamic between the sisters is where the powder-keg of human drama, sparks. The sisters having both experienced the same events, react to it quite differently. It’s an honest depiction of siblings' diverse range of viewpoints. The loyalty between the sisters and the test of their bond, results in the extremely bizarre ending and that is where Mama, truly succeeds in haunting you.

Jessica Chastain (Lawless, Zero Dark Thirty) leads the film with yet another amazing performance. There isn’t a trace of any previous incarnation in her portrayal. She also creates something organic in her work with the child actors. They have a believable connection that grows throughout the movie.

She also has great chemistry with co-star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones), who himself, gives a fantastic turn. He gets an opportunity to demonstrate his wide range and he utilizes the role to its full potential. He’s understated in some parts, while also imbuing the role of the uncle with loads of warmth and heart. 

The child actors playing the girls at both the beginning and remainder of the movie; are spectacular. The younger girls are precious and they lay the groundwork that sells the oncoming story arc. Megan Charpentier as the older Victoria comes across both intelligent and sweet.

Meanwhile, Isabelle Nelisse is highly impressive as the forebodingly undomesticated Lilly. It is so tricky to get good child actors and all of the kids successfully rise to the occasion.

Despite being short on long-lasting scares, Mama more than makes up for it in entertainment value and investing in what happens to the characters is easy to do. That’s more than you can say for a lot of horror movies. Rating: 7/10