Mama: Ghoulish Horror Meets Maternal Self-Sacrifice
I believe this movie stirred something in me. Perhaps the feelings I had for my ’97 sea foam Geo Metro? That was a similarly creaky and stressful thing that I’d have preferred to chop up for parts.
For good or for bad, Mama opens with a far more chilling scene than any of the film's subsequent ghostfoolery: It’s the beginning of the Great Recession and a freshly-ruined man in a suit runs horrific errands around town—first, shooting partners in his office and eventually making his way to his estranged wife and children. After a sad, heavy gunshot in an unseen room, the man kidnaps his two young daughters by car (naturally, the license plate: reads “N1 DAD”).
Here's your warning: This rest of this review will contain some spoilers.
Action continues to unfold at a quick clip: A dangerously fast drive through snowy mountains sends father and kiddos careening off the road. After everyone miraculously survives the crash, the girls are death-marched along until they come upon a cabin (even by this point, the movie had dragged to an extent that I was more interested in the fact that the cabin was full enviable, though certainly soiled, midcentury décor) where they take up shelter. You know where this is headed—dreadful dad is not long for this world. At a point, one of the little girls exclaims, "There’s a woman outside—she’s not touching the floor.” I fervently wished for mystery’s sake that we wouldn’t see the woman, but we do. Dad is swiftly gone, and his daughters won’t be found for another five years.
When the girls resurface, they are wild, malnourished and developmentally-deprived—and their rescue is due to a long and costly effort headed by their uncle, Lucas (curiously played by the same actor as dreadful dad; Game of Thrones red alert, it’s Jaime Lannister).
But the ostensible star of Mama is Lucas’s girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain). We’re first introduced to her on the toilet as she praises the sky over a “not pregnant” First Response stick. Also know this: She plays bass in one of those craaaazy rock and roll bands, a fact that comes up enough to barfingly commit to memory.
If the subtle urine test wasn’t enough, I’ll clarify that Annabel doesn’t want children. Though, it doesn’t matter—for several reasons, she and Lucas become guardians for the girls.
And increasingly, it’s clear that the children weren’t fully alone in the woods for those five years.
So what of the mama that doesn’t want to be a mama? Annabel’s story has a clear and breakneck transformational advance. She begins as a cagey and capricious character, but with every hug and bedtime tuck-in, Chastain’s face and voice seems to soften and warm. By the film’s end, Annabel is wholly made over—strong and heroic, ready to lay down her life for the girls. The framing feels clear: Accepting motherhood is the brave route. And we, the audience, should like her more now.
O Annabel, I wish you could’ve just gone on tour with your shitty band.
To make a recent horror film parallel, I have to do the unthinkable and admit to watching a 2011 Joey Potter-Holmes vehicle, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark; there, also, a damaged child helps a stepmom gain the truly warm glow of audience approval when she submits to maternal self-sacrifice.
Guillermo Del Toro co-wrote and produced Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, by the way—and while he only takes an executive producer credit here on Mama, I doubt more involvement would have been helpful.
Many people have praised the visual imagery of Mama, and I can only partially understand why. There’s one nutty and over-saturated dream sequence that’s remarkably pumping and visceral. But, look, I’ll never be scared by liberal use of CGI. As Mama’s determined visage floats near beds and peaks around shoulders, she might as well be Woody in Toy Story.
There is one other pervasive (and strangely sweet) theme in Mama: Your mother, as you know her, is simply a person who cares for you, full stop. It doesn’t matter how you found her, it doesn’t matter what she looks like. They can be biological, or an adopted step-bassist, or a ghoul who throws cherries at you in the woods; if she cares for you, that's Mama.
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