Well... it looks like we are starting 2013 with a rather fun ride. Mama, the new presentation by Guillermo del Toro, might not be breaking any new ground in the genre he helped define, but it follows the tradition of the twisted fairytale with full satisfaction. It provides a couple of nightmarish sequences, a handful of good shock scares, and a chilling feeling running down your spine for most of the film, and a few good laughs - most of them nervous laughs. Could you ask of anything more from a film like this?
The opening sequence has a distraught father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) running away with his two daughters in hand; over the radio we learn about a shooting at a financial firm. Was he involved in the shooting? Very likely, but we never find out. The family ends up in an abandoned cottage deep in the forest. No one has heared from them ever since.
The girls’ uncle, Jeffrey (also played by Coster-Waldau), never gives up hope. For five years he has been searching for his brother and nieces almost obsessively. His girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), indulges him because “it is cheaper than therapy” and never expects Jeffrey to find them. One regular morning, they find the girls. After five years in the wild, Victoria and Lily (Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse) behave more like animals. They crawl on all four, can barely mutter a sentence, and gnaw on tree-bark and moths. There is no sign of their father, but the girls keep talking to the walls, referencing an unseen “Mama”.
Jeffrey believes the girls need a chance of a normal life. So he moves them to the suburbs, and brings Annabel along. Annabel, who has multiple piercings and a tattoo sleeve, isn’t quite ready to play mother and housewife; Victoria and Lily, who scream anytime somebody touches them and eat their food on the floor, aren’t quite ready for a life in the suburbs either. But when Jeffrey ends up in the hospital, after an accident, the girls are stuck with each other whether they like it or not. Oh, and I forgot to mention, the creepy Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) owns the house. He has allowed Jeffrey and the girls to move in rent-free, as long as he has full access to keep an eye on them. If that doesn’t sound like a bad idea, what does?
So here is what we have:
A brilliant set up, the concept of trying to raise two feral-girls, while Dr. Creepy watches from afar, should be strong enough to be a film on its own. Amazing acting, Jessica Chastain is brilliant as usual and the girls, Charpentier and Nélisse, carry an intensity very few young actors are capable of. Solid direction, del Toro discovered Andrés Muschietti after seeing his short online and for a first timer he delivers. And the whole thing carry’s del Toro’s stamp and signature.
What we are missing is consistency. The film doesn’t seem to know what to do with Mama, the ghost that has followed the girls into the suburbs. Her back story is not terribly original, and seems ripped off from a japanese ghost story. And when Jeffrey and Annabel finally find out how to get rid of her, the solution seems so obvious, you question why it took them so long to figure it out. As for Dr. Dreyfuss, he goes out alone at night to investigate and ends up like the high-school slut in a teen-slasher. Seriously? The creepy doctor character has to be smarter than that.
As I said, Mama is solid but the resolution still left me wanting more. In a way it is a bit too perfect that it became imperfect. There aren’t enough open ends, and I kinda wanted to know what the local kids though of the wild girls who just moved in next door. They are much scarier and interesting, than a skinny ghost that crawls on walls.