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Review: ‘Mama’

Guillermo Del Toro Mentors Another Young Director

Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier play sisters who were left on their ow...

Credit: Universal Pictures

Above: Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier play sisters who were left on their own in the forest for five years in "Mama."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Mama."


Halloween's long past but it's never too late for a good ghost story. Guillermo Del Toro is once again mentoring a new director, this time with the film "Mama" (opening January 18 throughout San Diego).

In addition to directing fantastical films, Guillermo Del Toro has made a point of producing movies showcasing young directors. "Mama" is Andrés Muschietti's feature adaptation of a short horror film he made in 2008. The story focuses on two little girls.

As a psychologist explains in the film, "Victoria and Lily were found in deplorable conditions, their parents gone, alone in the wilderness for at least 5 years, how they survived is unexplainable."

The film explains what happens to them through a series of crayon drawings that accompany the opening titles. This is just the first hint that we are in for something special. The drawings are the scrawls of a young child but if we look more closely we see the horrors that these young girls experienced in the wilds -- crawling around on all fours like animals, eating rats, being attacked by wolves... it's a horrific experience but none of it is actually depicted on screen. What Muschietti does show us is the horror leading up to their abandonment as a distraught and suicidal father brings his girls out to the woods to execute them. But something in the woods saves the girls and protects them for the five years they are alone in the wild.

When the girls are finally found, they are like feral animals, especially young Lily (Isabelle Nélisse ) who runs around on all fours and can barely speak. Victoria (Megan Charpentier) is marginally better, at least she quickly regains her speech and proves comfortable walking on two legs. Their uncle (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) takes them in and tries to tame them by offering a loving home with him and his girlfriend (Jessica Chastain). But the girls have brought something with them from the woods. Something they call Mama. She may be an imaginary being created to help them survive or perhaps she is something supernatural.

The film serves up a splendidly crafted ghost story that delivers chills, beautifully creepy visual effects, and even some true emotional drama. Muschietti doesn't give us a conventional ghost. Mama can be playful and protective but also cruel and terrifying. Muschietti serves up some conventional scares with things popping out of the darkness accompanied by big music crescendos but he also delivers some wonderfully understated moments that prove far more successful. I would describe more but don't want to spoil the fun. I will say that the best and most original scenes are with Lily and Mama. Muschietti taps into classic fears -- what's under the bed, what's in the closet, what's lurking in that creepy spot on the wall. He displays a nice balance between delivering familiar elements of a ghost story and then giving them a twist.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Universal Pictures

Jessica Chastain should not be looking in the closet in "Mama."

The acting is fine throughout, especially the little girls. Isabelle Nélisse and Megan Charpentier are impressive and Muschietti knows how to use them. When we first see them in the woods, they appear almost inhuman and even after they are brought back to a normal life, they maintain a certain oddity about their movements and appearances. The young actresses are both amazing and fully convincing. Jessica Chastain, in a role very different from that of the CIA agent in Zero Dark Thirty, also impresses us as a woman slow to develop maternal instincts.

"Mama" (rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements) is not a gross out horror film and it's not trying to terrorize you. But it does deliver an elegantly creepy ghost tale that might subtly insinuate itself into your nightmares.

Companion viewing: "Devil's Backbone," "The Orphanage," "Sinister," "The Wild Child"


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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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