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Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash
Andres Muschietti
Andres Muschietti, Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross
Rated PG-13
100 Mins.
Universal Pictures
commentary with director/co-writer Andy Muschietti and producer/co-writer Barbara Muschietti; original short with introduction by executive producer Guillermo Del Toro; making-of featurette, deleted scenes. Also, on Blu-ray: "Matriarchal Secrets" special effects featurette.

 "Mama" Will Remind You Just How Good Jessica Chastain Really Is... 
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Presented by Guillermo del Toro, who seems to have become the master of finding up-and-coming filmmakers with a unique yet disciplined artistic voice, Mama is a bit of a surprise because it is a horror film starring current queen of the indies and current Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, whose performance in Zero Dark Thirty has to be considered one of the front-runners for this year's Best Actress award. I'll admit that I didn't find myself that enchanted with Chastain's performance in Zero Dark Thirty, but after watching her rich and complex performance here I'm reminded of just how talented Chastain is in a role that is 180 degrees different from that of Maya in Zero Dark Thirty yet nearly as amazing in how it contributes to the satisfaction of the film.

Mama should have been a throwaway film, and Chastain could have easily offered up a throwaway performance amongst this otherwise no-name cast being led by a first-time feature filmmaker, Andres' Muschietti, whose short film this film is based upon. PG-13 horror is frequently disappointing, a fact attributable largely to the fact that a filmmaker seemingly can't go far enough to truly generate the horrors needed to make the film a satisfying experience. Of course, that's always been a bit of a perplexing observation for me, because a good majority of old school horror, really satisfying horror, is either PG or the equivalent of PG-13 rated. Mama is a reminder that a talented filmmaker can create a suspenseful and thrilling and horrifying experience with a talented cast, a compelling story and just enough technology to weave it all together.

Mama scares and compels and mesmerizes because it builds its foundation upon what many consider to be one of life's greatest truths - a mother's love is forever. Forever as in never-ending, ya know? That kernel of truth, both very tangible and very spiritual, drives everything that happens in this entertainingly suspenseful and involving film that centers around two girls, played to near perfection by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse. The two girls play Lilly and Victoria, respectively, who find themselves abandoned by their father (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) in every sense of the word. Abandonment plans don't go quite as expected, however, and the two girls disappear without a trace for five years. They haven't been forgotten, however, as their father's brother, Jeffrey (also played by Coster-Waldau), has apparently used insurance money to finance an ongoing search for the girls. When they are finally found five years later, the father is nowhere around and it is inexplicably apparent that the two young girls have raised themselves in the wilderness for the past five years.

Or have they?

Jeffrey and his rock n' roller girlfriend (Jessica Chastain, almost unrecognizable in a black wig and all tattooed up, commit themselves, if somewhat hesitantly, to providing the girls a safe home once they are determined stable enough by Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash), whose motives are not surprisingly more than a little self-driven.

The story that unfolds from this point is a rarity amongst horror films - it actually makes sense while also being frequently scary, thrilling, suspenseful and downright entertaining. There are moments of levity in the film, perfectly placed by the script that Muschietti co-writes with his sister, Barbara, and Neil Cross. As a character, Mama remains mostly a rather vague presence in the film. While we're certain there is a Mama, Mama is obscure enough that we understand and believe that those around the girls believe Mama to be a long-held coping skill by the girls or some post-traumatic delusion that will dissipate with time. Muschietti does a terrific job of doing a slow reveal on Mama, who finally comes into the picture courtesy of a stop-motion performance by Spanish actor Javier Botet, whose presence genuinely creates one of the most electrifying horror film characters in quite awhile. Mama is simultaneously a comfort to these girls and horrifying presence that won't go away.

There are so many ways in which Mama could have gone wrong, starting with a reliance on young actors to portray emotionally complex children prone to animalistic behaviors. Yet Nelisse and Charpentier are beautifully cast, exuding both the innocence and the rawness to make these characters convincing rather than caricatures. Charpentier is already a Hollywood veteran having twice played a younger version of Amanda Seyfried, while also making a name for herself in several other television and film efforts. Nelisse, the younger of the two, is a relative newcomer yet brings to mind young Heather O'Rourke from Poltergeist in her ability to project both child-like and otherworldly traits that just leave you absolutely chilled to the core.

Then, there's Jessica Chastain. I flashed back, oddly enough, to when Eddie Murphy found himself an Oscar nominee for Dreamgirls then right in the midst of awards season came out with the godawful Norbit to remind us of just how awful a good majority of his family film career has been. Chastain, on the other hand, right in the midst of awards season serves up a reminder of just how incredibly good and diverse a talent she offers. I have no idea what motivated Chastain to take on what could have easily been a one-note role in a new director's horror film, but whatever the reason she hits a home run as a young woman who starts off as an emotionally detached rocker chick and turns into a fiercely protective and maternal young woman whose transition feels authentic and hard-earned. It's a pretty remarkable performance in a film that won't be taking home any awards, yet is still immensely satisfying.

Despite playing two characters, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is essentially a supporting player here, though he performs quite well. His initial scene, in particular, is quite haunting and when he shows up again as Jeffrey it takes a double-take to realize it's the same actor in both roles. Daniel Kash brings to mind Halloween's Donald Pleasence as a man whose presence you never completely trust.

The fact that so many other films and performances come to mind while watching Mama could be a horrible thing, but it works quite well as Muschietti borrows wisely and firmly imprints each of the film's frames with his own unique vision. The film's special effects are relatively simple yet extremely effective, while D.P. Antonio Riestra lenses the film in a way that is occasionally representative of Asian horror and often elicits the darkest of giggles.

While hardcore gore fans won't find much to appreciate here, connoisseurs of a more classic thriller/horror vibe will embrace the emotionally resonant and thought-provoking Mama, a film that accomplishes as much in the dark as Zero Dark Thirty and lets you see the body.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
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