Punk chick Annabel (Jessica Chastain) doesn’t want to be a mom. She’s first introduced staring at a negative pregnancy test, saying “Thank you, God.” With her tattoos and a wardrobe of tank tops, Misfits T-shirts, and tattered jeans, she doesn’t ‘look’ the part. Soon enough, though, she’s dragged by her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) into caregiving for his nieces, who are semi-feral from five years in the wilderness after a botched murder/suicide attempt by their businessman father. Oh, and they were raised by a spidery, possessive banshee.

Mama, at its best, uses its contrived plot to correlate childhood fears with Annabel’s own insecurities about parenting. Asking Victoria and Lilly (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nélisse) “What’s in the closet?” and “What’s under the bed?” when she (almost) catches sight of their supernatural Mama, Annabel has lost any sense of control–of herself and her life. Andrés Muschietti shoots scenes where she is framed by doorways or otherwise isolated from the children within their rural, state-picked home (a condition of granting custody): she’s vaguely aware of the ghost’s presence, but wants out of her situation (“It’s not my job”). Only after Lucas is hospitalized, by Mama, does Annabel take interest in the girls. She converses with the more receptive Victoria or warms a freezing, resistant Lilly in an embrace similar to how Ripley catches the terrified Newt in Aliens. Mama herself is like the Queen Alien, elongated fingers and cranium, fighting Annabel for control of Lilly and Victoria. Her presence in the house is even marked by a blackened orifice, a gateway from which she and moth-servants spring forth. This rivalry posits a Gen Y update of James Cameron’s classic, but Muschietti piles on contrivances: a case worker investigating Mama’s rote backstory and a great-aunt who also wants the kids are dull. Their only purpose to push towards a senseless climax in a digitally-colored Thomas Kinkade forest (executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s rubber-stamp on the project). The movie becomes so cluttered, Muschietti forgets to give Chastain her own “Get away from her, you bitch!”


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