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. 

by Jenny Catchings
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4 Comments Have Been Posted

I liked the CGI until the

I liked the CGI until the second half of the film, especially the very end, when they revealed her completely. It was more effectively scary when she was partially obscured.

Ah yes, that stereotype.....

I haven't seen this movie yet, but have been excited about it ever since the preview. The lighting and cinematography really stood out as unique, and the fact that the "step-mom" character wasn't a stereotypical mom appealed to me as well.
But I am familiar with this plot, it is all too common in TV and movies. The anti-motherhood character is almost obnoxious in how self-centered they're portrayed, and they only become more likeable as they tone down....themselves and become self-sacrificing moms. But speaking as a woman who had a kid way too young and has had to struggle with the balance between my own identity and motherhood, I can see what this kind of character is born from. If you're not a natural born martyr type, settling into motherhood is a challenge for anyone. For most women in fact, even those who are naturally self-sacrificial. It doesn't mean giving up your career, your dreams, and your identity, but it does mean missing out on things from time to time, not getting to sleep in as often as you'd like, and having to take care of another human being at times when you really don't want really, really don't want to, to the point where you wanna sulk off and pout about it. Especially if you're a single mom.
Also, this makes me think of a girl I know, and I think others may know the same type of girl....they harp on how they could never ever have kids because they're way too selfish and how much they hate relationships and men and they're SO obnoxious about it. Then you start noticing they do it even more when guys are around, as if they're presenting a challenge for men to come in and "tame" them out of their selfish ways and turn them into the marrying, baby-making kind. Time really tells the truth with these girls because the second they decide to get married and have kids they're total nazis about it - the opposite of everything they used to be. Just another example of where screenwriters get their ideas. I'm sure they knew someone like that.

Mama played by actor Javier Botet

I haven't seen the film, but I was fascinated to discover that Mama herself is not a CGI creation, but a real human actor named Javier Botet. He has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that grants him long, double-jointed limbs that for some very creepy movements:


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