×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Mama

A visually polished but overly repetitive chiller about two girls haunted by a ghost with a seriously advanced case of postpartum depression.

With:
Annabel - Jessica Chastain
Lucas/Jeffrey - Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Victoria - Megan Charpentier
Lilly - Isabelle Nelisse
Dr. Dreyfuss - Daniel Kash
Mama - Javier Botet
Jean Podolski - Jane Moffat

What’s under the bed? Who’s behind that door? What’s making those vaguely satanic noises? These and other thought-provoking questions are entertained in “Mama,” a visually polished but overly repetitive chiller about two girls haunted by a ghost with a seriously advanced case of postpartum depression. Expanded by sibling filmmakers Andy and Barbara Muschietti from their 2008 short, this English-language, Spanish-Canadian co-production bears the influence of exec producer Guillermo del Toro in its graphic supernatural elements and lyrical underpinnings, but ultimately amounts to little more than a stylish exercise assured of a solid opening and a strong ancillary afterlife.

One of the story’s key miscalculations is the way it gives audiences a pretty good glimpse of the titular spook early on, leaving Mama with little to do for the rest of the 109-minute running time besides remind the viewer, ad nauseam, about her extreme clinginess and anger-management issues.

A flying, towering banshee played by 7-foot-tall Spanish thesp Javier Botet (“REC”) under an ugly brown swirl of long hair and tattered rags, Mama looks like a sewer-rat Rapunzel as designed by Edvard Munch. This grief-stricken, child-bereft spirit haunts a lonely cabin in the woods, where, in a bizarre collision between two equally tortured backstories, a deeply distressed father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has brought his two young daughters in preparation for a grisly murder-suicide. But before Dad can harm the girls, Mama forcefully intervenes.

A full five years pass before the girls are discovered in the cabin — feral, frightened, limited in their language abilities, and prone to skittering about on all fours. After examining the physically healthy but emotionally traumatized 8-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and 6-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), a psychiatrist (Daniel Kash) concludes that the girls coped with their half-decade of isolation by creating an imaginary female protector.

But that theory doesn’t account for the ghoulish events that occur when Victoria and Lilly go to live with their musician uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau again) and his punk-rocker g.f., Annabel (Jessica Chastain) in a picturesque suburban manse. Soon doors are opening and closing by themselves, a disembodied voice is overheard singing lullabies, the walls start to sprout living insects, and Lucas winds up hospitalized after a not-so-accidental fall. Left alone with Victoria and Lilly, Annabel must discover her own latent maternal instincts and ward off Mama’s increasingly anticlimactic tantrums.

Andy Muschietti displays unusual style and confidence for a first-time helmer, and he and producer Barbara Muschietti (both credited for the screenplay with Neil Cross) have taken pains to render Mama as sympathetic a supernatural terrorist as possible; her respective bonds with the older, better-adjusted Victoria and the younger, more dependent Lilly are cleverly delineated. At times the film seems to be striving for the fantastical feel of del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” from the “Once upon a time … ” title card that kicks things off, to the poetic touches in Anastasia Masaro’s literally moth-eaten production design and the cloying orchestral surge of Fernando Velazquez’s score.

But all this feels like elegant fairy-tale shellac on top of an otherwise routine succession of jolts, shocks and fakeouts, the explanations for which will be apparent to the mildly attentive viewer long before they occur to any of the characters. Mama, for all her digital and prosthetic creepiness, is finally a bit of a bore.

Chastain acquits herself well in a scream-queen role made somewhat more distinctive by a butch haircut and sarcastic goth-girl edge, and she wrings maximum feeling from Annabel’s slow-dawning sense of connection with her young charges (effectively portrayed by young Charpentier and Nelisse). Yet in straining so hard to combat the assumption that a woman like Annabel couldn’t possibly be a good mother, the film protests rather too much, coming across as not much more enlightened than the waspy great-aunt (played as a one-note cold fish by Jane Moffat) trying to secure custody of the girls.

The super-slick production is distinguished by Antonio Riestra’s adroit lensing, with its grimy earth tones and sometimes suspenseful framing, particularly in one memorable deep-focus shot that makes shivery use of offscreen space.

Mama

Spain-Canada

Production: A Universal (in U.S.) release presented with Guillermo del Toro of a De Milo/Toma 78 production. Produced by J. Miles Dale, Barbara Muschietti. Executive producer, Guillermo del Toro. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Screenplay, Neil Cross, Andy Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti; story, Andy Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti.

Crew: Camera (color), Antonio Riestra; editor, Michele Conroy; music, Fernando Velazquez; production designer, Anastasia Masaro; art director, Elis Lam; set decorator, Patti Cuccia; costume designer, Luis Sequeira; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat/SDDS), Kelly Wright; sound designer, Gabriel Gutierrez; re-recording mixer, Greg Chapman; special effects coordinator, Warren Appleby; visual effects supervisors, Edward J. Taylor IV, Aaron Weintraub, Joan Amer, David Heras; supervising visual effects producer, Dennis Berardi; visual effects producers, Sarah McMurdo, Wilson Cameron, Carlos Puchol; visual effects, Mr. X, Cubica, User T38; stunt coordinator, Jamie Jones; line producer, Ingrid Fernandez de Castro; associate producer, Cristina Lera Gracia; assistant director, Jeff Authors; second unit camera, Miroslaw Baszak, Michael Galbraith; casting, Robin D. Cook. Reviewed at Universal Executive screening room, Universal City, Calif., Jan. 10, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 109 MIN.

With: Annabel - Jessica Chastain
Lucas/Jeffrey - Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Victoria - Megan Charpentier
Lilly - Isabelle Nelisse
Dr. Dreyfuss - Daniel Kash
Mama - Javier Botet
Jean Podolski - Jane Moffat(English dialogue)

More Film

  • Alita Battle Angel

    Box Office: 'Alita: Battle Angel' No Match for China's 'Wandering Earth' Overseas

    Hollywood movies like “Alita: Battle Angel” and “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” are doing respectable business overseas, but they’re proving no match for foreign titles at the international box office. The Chinese New Year is bringing in huge business in the Middle Kingdom. China’s sci-fi epic “The Wandering Earth” pulled in a [...]

  • ABA_062_DAU_0060_v0409.87501 – Rosa Salazar stars as

    Box Office: 'Alita: Battle Angel' Wins Dismal President's Day Weekend

    Fox’s sci-fi adventure “Alita: Battle Angel” dominated in North America, but its opening weekend win isn’t leaving the box office with much to celebrate. Tracking services estimate that this will be one of the lowest grossing President’s Day weekends in years. Ticket sales are on pace to be the smallest bounty for the holiday frame [...]

  • Bohemian Rhapsody

    'Bohemian Rhapsody,' 'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Among Cinema Audio Society Winners

    Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the Cinema Audio Society’s top prize for sound mixing at Saturday night’s 55th annual CAS Awards. The film is Oscar-nominated for sound mixing this year along with “Black Panther,” “First Man,” “Roma” and “A Star Is Born.” In a surprise over heavy-hitters “Incredibles 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Wes [...]

  • Oscars Placeholder

    Make-Up and Hair Stylist Guild Applauds Academy's Stance on Airing Every Oscar Winner

    Rowdy boos were followed by triumphant cheers at the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards on Saturday in Los Angeles, as the Hollywood union touched on a week of controversy over a reversed decision to hand out four Oscars during the show’s commercial breaks. Hair and makeup was one of the four categories that would [...]

  • Marvelous Mrs Maisel Vice

    'Vice,' 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Lead Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Winners

    Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” starring Oscar nominees Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, won two awards at the sixth annual Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Saturday night. The film won for best period and/or character makeup as well as special makeup effects. “Mary Queen of Scots” received the prize for period [...]

  • Bette Midler

    Bette Midler to Perform on the Oscars (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bette Midler will perform “The Place Where Lost Things Go” at the Oscar ceremonies on Feb. 24, Variety has learned. Midler, a longtime friend of composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman, will sing the song originally performed by Emily Blunt in “Mary Poppins Returns.” The song, by Shaiman and his lyricist partner Scott Wittman, is one of five [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content