Something is amiss. Over these scenes we hear a radio report of financial failures, fraud, and murder. That’s when we meet the totally stressed out father of the child. He bundles his two daughters into the car and drives off, too fast, onto icy roads around the mountain and into the woods. Without telling you something quite startling that occurs, I’ll move on and just say that each step in this story is fraught with dread. From a wild ride then walk through the winter woods, two little girls cling to each other in an empty cabin, without an inkling of what’s going on.
The children in this film have been remarkably well cast. In the opening scenes, Morgan McGarry is intelligently precious as young Victoria, wrapping her arms around baby sister Lilly, played by Sierra and Maya Dawe with the simplicity of the small children they are. When the scene advances to five years later, Miss McGarry grows into the lovely Megan Charpentier as Victoria. The baby-faced Isabelle Nélisse is an apt choice for Lilly, with the same drooping apple cheeks as the Dawes. When we meet the girls again after five years alone in the woods, I wonder if young Victoria had been somehow computerized, so similar are the two different girls playing the child. Miss Nélisse’s Lilly is terrifying in her feral nature, and Miss Charpentier’s Victoria heartbreaking as she struggles back to civilization.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jeffrey and then Lucas (the Daddy of the girls and then his brother Luke), does straightforward work, but the rollercoaster is ridden by Jessica Chastain as Lucas’ Goth rocker girlfriend Annabel, an unwilling maternal figure who warms to the role when they win custody of the children. After the girls are discovered in the woods, they are treated by Dr. Dreyfuss (a solid performance by Daniel Kash), a doctor with as much imagination as academic knowledge. The adults are very fine in this film, and Chastain continues to build her repertoire of characters, each one different from the last. But it’s the children who are riveting.
Mama is good, but not great. At times the underscoring was more obvious than ominous, though it never diminished the excellent work by director of photography Antonio Riestra. Director Andrés Muschietti wrote the striking script with his sister Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross. There is no room for ambiguity in their story. From the first ten minutes (not to mention the trailers and advertising) the ghost is corporeal. Generally I find that less fun than the ambiguity of Robert Wise’s classic film The Haunting, but the influence of executive producer Guillermo del Toro was apparent in the stunning visualization of “Mama.” More importantly, while Shirley Jackson’s heroine in The Haunting thought she sought death with a family of sorts, the anti-heroine of Mama sought family and life after death.
~ Molly Matera, signing off. Not likely to sleep well....