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Movie Review: Mama

By Bob Garver 

Jan. 21, 2013. Last week, I spent the better part of my review for “Zero Dark Thirty” talking about Jessica Chastain’s chances of winning an Oscar for Best Actress. I will not need to spend the same amount of time talking about Chastain’s chance of winning an Oscar for “Mama”. In fact, not only do I believe that Chastain will not win an Oscar for “Mama”, but I believe that “Mama” may hurt her chances of winning an Oscar for “Zero Dark Thirty”.

Studios love to use January and February as a dumping ground for bad movies starring suddenly-relevant nominees. Perhaps the most infamous example is 2007’s “Norbit”, an awful Eddie Murphy vehicle with a release that coincided with Murphy’s nomination for “Dreamgirls”. Many felt that the blanket of advertisements featuring Murphy in a fat suit and a drag lost him the support of Academy voters and ultimately cost him the Oscar. There’s nothing in “Mama” that will embarrass Chastain as much as a fat suit or drag, but the film is generic enough that voters will know that she is still taking “paycheck” roles.

The film opens with the plight of two young sisters, Victoria and Lilly. Their murderous father takes them to an abandoned cabin to kill them, but is stopped by a supernatural creature. Five years later, the girls are rescued from the abandoned cabin and placed in the custody of their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain). The girls are super-cute, of course, the better to juxtapose with the creepy elements of the film. 9-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) has retained a little of her knowledge of the world outside the cabin, but 5-year-old Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) is leaving the only life she’s ever known. How did the girls survive for five years without adult supervision? Simple, they were raised by “Mama”.

Lucas is keen on raising the girls, but Annabel isn’t sure if she’s up for it. They don’t have the means to raise a family, she isn’t ready for so much responsibility (she’s a rock guitarist with lots of tattoos, so the implication is that she’s pretty irresponsible anyway), the girls are severely developmentally disabled, and scary things start happening around the house as soon as they arrive. Then Lucas gets put in a coma after some late-night creepiness, and she has to do it all alone. She manages to surprise everyone including herself by becoming a selfless, loving guardian. Too bad then, that Mama wants the girls back.

Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a movie if Mama simply killed Lucas and Annabel or abducted the girls, even though she apparently has the ability to travel between the cabin and Lilly’s location at will. Mama exists as a source of cheap horror movie scares: going bump in the night, summoning unfriendly butterflies, lurking in shadows, that sort of thing. One scene sees her interact with Lilly in a manner shamelessly reminiscent of the “Paranormal Activity” series. I will admit that she’s pretty scary once we get a good look at her. The film was produced by Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and you can see his knack for unsettling visuals at work in the last act.

Impressive ending aside, “Mama” is a dull PG-13 horror movie indistinguishable from countless other dull PG-13 horror movies. Its box office success can be attributed to an easy-to-remember title and the star power of Jessica Chastain. Since I want Chastain to win the Oscar, and her strongest competition seems to be Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook”, I will take this opportunity to remind everybody that last year Lawrence starred in “House at the End of the Street”, a PG-13 horror movie even duller than “Mama”.

One and a Half Stars out of Five.

Contact Bob Garver at rrg251@nyu.edu.