Review: Mama (2013)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #705


Number of Views: One
Release Date: January 18, 2013
Sub-Genre: Supernatural
Country of Origin: Spain
Budget: $15,000,000
Box-Office: $146,400,000
Running Time: 100 minutes
Director: Andrés Muschietti
Producers: J. Miles Dale, Bárbara Muschietti
Screenplay: Neil Cross, Andrés Muschietti, Bárbara Muschietti
Based on Mamá by Andrés Muschietti
Special Effects: Montse Ribé, David Martí
Visual Effects: Aaron Weintraub, Edward Taylor IV, David Heras, Cesc Biénzobas, Joan Amer
Cinematography: Antonio Riestra
Score: Fernando Velázquez
Editing: Michelle Conroi
Studios: Toma 78, De Milo Productions
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Morgan McGarry, Isabelle Nélisse, Maya Dawe, Sierra Dawe, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Laura Guiteras, Melina Matthews, Hannah Cheesman, Jane Moffat, David Fox, Julia Chantrey, Elva Mai Hoover, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Diane Gordon


Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Fernando Velázquez “The Encounter/Main Title”

[2] Fernando Velázquez “A New Home”

[3] Fernando Velázquez “Mama Fight”


Any mamas and papa bears out there should be more than aware of how critical the development of a child’s brain architecture is to their future learning, behavior, and health. The brain is built from the bottom up in an ongoing process that commences at birth and continues well into adulthood. There are literally billions of neurons waiting to be spliced to the network and, while the more elementary skills form first, up to a thousand new connections are forged every second as primary wiring is undertaken. In short, whatever experiences play out in these first few years could be critical to your child’s development and this unfortunately extends to anything negative. Should a youngster be exposed to unnecessary cruelty, then they are more likely to act out themselves at a later date as the tethers have already been fused awkwardly. It’s just basic science.


Someone should tell this to stockbroker Jeffrey Desange (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is so distraught after surrendering his nest egg during a massive financial crash, that he murders his business partners and estranged wife before whisking his beloved girls, Victoria and Lilly, away to provide them a marginally more humane form of closure. After losing control of his car and sliding into the mountainside wilderness, he locates a rundown cabin and prepares to bid adieu to the unkind world that has robbed him of any sense of reason. However, before daddy dearest can cock his trigger, he is ushered forcefully into the darkness by a shadowy figure leaving two orphaned under-fives to fend for themselves. Not quite the best laid plans pops had in mind.


We then skip forward five years and a search party, sponsored by Jeffrey’s twin brother Lucas has managed to track the girls down, albeit in a feral state after such a long time in seclusion. Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are taken straight to a welfare clinic under the supervision of Dr. Gerald Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), while Lucas breaks the bad news to his tattooed rock chick girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) that her freewheeling lifestyle is about to undertake a permanent shift towards reluctantly responsible. With their custody claim in the pipeline and the girls’ meddling great-aunt Jean (Jane Moffat) preparing to counter their proposal, Dreyfuss starts to make some curious observations. While Eight-year-old Victoria seems to be adapting relatively easily to a normal existence, her younger sister has regressed severely and the pair of them keep making reference to a maternal protector by the name of “Mama”, leaving the good doctor soundly befuddled.


Pretty much the moment Lucas and Annabel introduce the girls to their new home, unforeseen tragedy strikes, leaving him stranded in a coma and her not best pleased about having to assume sole guardianship until which time as he snaps out of this selfish slumber. You’re darn tooting she’s pissed and ill-prepared to take on such overwhelming responsibility. Children can sense when an adult isn’t comfortable around them and, while she is making vague progress with the older of the two, Lilly remains wary and hostile. To add insult to injury, the “Mama” they keep mentioning appears to have taken up squatter status in their bedroom closet and it isn’t long before an exhausted Annabel begins jumping at some decidedly long shadows.


Mama epitomizes slow-burn, gradually unfurling its blackened petals as we delve deeper into the origins of the mysterious maternal ghoul and learn exactly why these particular girls are so important to her. There is no question that she poses a fairly significant threat as corroborated by the very worst she can muster should anyone dare to oppose her own guardianship, but seemingly this danger doesn’t extend to Victoria and Lilly who remain wide-eyed in her presence. Just like the tormented character she portrays so soulfully, the weight is on Chastain’s shoulders alone and she carries this burden most graciously, excelling as the surrogate mother evolves before our very eyes. Coster-Waldau provides all the support he can from the sidelines, although his is never meant to be the critical role as this is ultimately all about maternal instinct and daddies just aren’t invited.


Mention must be made of Charpentier and Nélisse, whose omnipresence is critical to our investment and make an absolute mockery of their tender years. Naturally the role of Victoria is the more demanding of the two but both manage to muster turns that could so easily have been a distraction, but instead, further heighten our concentration. It’s one thing coaxing performances from child actors but entirely another when it appears as though they’re not being chaperoned. Where unanimous praise is concerned, it really doesn’t get any higher than that.


Based on his 2008 short Mamá, Andrés Muschietti’s film is far more interested in scope than spectacle. That said, with Guillermo del Toro’s fine name attached as executive producer, you just know there’s going to be a Gothic flavor to proceedings and I found it strikingly similar to J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage and his very own Crimson Peak with regards to both tone and execution. Cinematographer Antonio Riestra makes the very most of every last flickering light, festering passageway and mold encrusted wall, creating a spectral atmosphere all by himself. Meanwhile, the sweeping compositions of Fernando Velázquez fits around the striking visuals snugly, highlighting the incoming jeopardy, while also tugging away at those heartstrings.


Should you be an adopted mother or have a particularly strong maternal instinct, then you may find Mama a little too distressing to digest as there’s an air of tragedy underscoring the thrills and chills that overrides fear once we head into the deeply affecting closing act. The conclusion is a thing of unrestrained beauty and also surprisingly touching. Steeped in melancholia, it elevates Muschietti’s film to higher ground than we may have been anticipating. If I’m splitting hairs here, then there’s something faintly chilly about this twisted contemporary fairy tale that I can’t quite place my finger on, despite a trio of staggering central performances and the hefty emotional resonance of the tale Muschietti tells. That said, I can have no real complaints as it has already been made abundantly clear that daddies aren’t invited. I’ve never been so relieved not to possess a functioning womb.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Dread Factor: 3/5

For the Dread-Heads: Builds up a fair head of steam during the first two acts and the titular terrorizer is certainly not the kind of wiry wench you would wish to inhabit your closet come lights out. Stringy, pliable and boasting the kind of transportation technique that calls to mind our oriental cousins, she is a fearsome antagonist for damned sure. Yet Muschietti is aware that we’ve seen it all before and opts against full-throttle fear mongering, in favor of a general air of foreboding.

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Read Crimson Peak Appraisal
Read The Orphanage Appraisal
Read The Canal Appraisal
Read Antichrist Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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