Any old cinephile or casual moviegoer has a pretty solid idea of what to expect when strolling into a film like “Mama.” And that’s precisely why the theater was 25-percent full — mostly consisting of stoners and those who incessantly sniffle. Surprisingly, this one manages to beguile, irk and anger, all for its own emotionally manipulative agenda. Without a doubt, the script plagues itself with throwback clichés, but insofar “Mama” doesn’t die from said plague. By the credits, the missteps stand out like a sore thumb, but the dense tale is very much intact.

Mama

B
Universal Pictures
Rave and Quality 16


Rookie director Andrés Muschietti takes an ambitious stab at art house-y suspense. It follows a newly fatherless pair of young sisters, their incredible survival in the wilderness and the abrupt reacquainting with their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Headhunters”) and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty”).

The girls’ transition back into residential life is far from, say, Gary Busey returning to his origin in the catacombs. The elder girl (first-timer Megan Charpentier) sort of has the hang of it, recalling most vocabulary and being (barely) emotionally responsive. The younger (relatively unknown Isabelle Nélisse), on the other hand, is freakishly animalistic, from galloping on all fours to eating from doggie dishes. But one thing keeps these girls mysteriously in line: Mama.

We learn the girls, upon losing their father in the sub-zero winter years ago, created a projection, an abstraction, of a would-be mother. To be blunt, Mama doesn’t take kindly to the cool uncle and his punk-rocker girlfriend. Envy ensues.

Don’t be afraid, you can laugh in “Mama.” That’s normal. It’s OK to shake your head at Chastain’s The Misfits T-shirt and her contrived black-licorice affinity. Seriously. You may even question why you’re in the theater when the onscreen lights flicker with indecision every three scenes. And please, for the love of God, guffaw hard when the younger sister unthinkably reminds you of Gollum in every sense. The point is that these moments are indeed transient — a very brief departure from the yellow brick road. The laughable stuff doesn’t bog down, but rather ups our attention span for the real story.

Some hag librarian, who probably was more important than initially thought, tells the investigating shrink, “Ghosts are an emotion condemned to right a wrong.” This plot point accredits Mama herself and her fucked-up motive behind indoctrinating the girls. Propelled by this, Chastain impressively goes from indifferent Heineken-guzzler to protective mother figure. And it’s great. Chastain has proven herself in different projects recently, so the stage comfort remains strong.

Truth be told, audiences like to identify with characters (or even the camera for that matter). A big rub with “Mama” is its failure to root for anyone in particular until the final 30 minutes. Too many teams form and their interrelatedness blurs. But that’s part of the fun.

Another fun piece is the lensing: An ever-so-patient camera allows objects to invade the frame instead of the other way around. Peerless pans and tantalizing tilts make way for unpredictability in every scene.

Given four days post-screening, when you’re done joking about Mama’s need for a guacamole-looking facial, you’ll appreciate what you saw. It’s about nature and nurture, two mutually exclusive castles, and envy connecting them as the moat. It doesn’t matter who wins because, in the end, the script holds.

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