Norbit, the notorious flop that may or may not have killed Eddie Murphy’s Oscar chances for Dreamgirls, remains a cautionary tale for trophy contenders. Sully your reputation with an awful movie in the weeks between being named a finalist and the close of voting, and you may as well work on your “It’s an honor just to be nominated” speech. Arguably the Best Actress frontrunner for her powerful turn in Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain now faces her own potential Norbit with Mama, a supernatural tale released in the dubious mid-January dumping grounds. Fortunately for Chastain, the film is too imaginative to negatively affect her Oscar dreams, but neither is it a bright spot on her resume.
The story of young Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse), discovered filthy and crawling on all fours after living alone in a forest cabin for five years, is a sufficiently creepy premise. Uttering gibberish, drawing disturbing pictures, and humming eerie lullabies, their hopeful domestication with Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Aunt Annabel (Chastain) is ripe with conflict, especially when the girls’ titular “constructed” maternal figure follows them to their new home.
Expanding his acclaimed short film into a feature-length thriller, Andy Muscietti sets a fine scene, but nobly struggles to create a consistent vibe. In a rush to unleash Mama, he leaves little room for character development, preferring to focus on his ghostly creation. The director’s commitment to delivering chills above all else is commendable, but with sparse insight into what makes his players tick, the impact of their looming peril is only so effective.
As suggested by its “Once upon a time…” prologue text, Mama is more of a dark fairy tale than a horror film, though scares nonetheless remain high on Muscietti’s priorities. In their execution, less is more as quick bursts of Mama’s gnarled face and twisted limbs provide many a jump. Likewise, the subtlety of Lilly giddily floating around her bedroom with the aid of an unseen entity is a masterstroke, but as the film progresses and more of Mama is seen, prolonged exposure dulls her impact and the spookiness on which the story is ultimately over-reliant also suffers.
Even with these flaws and a script that essentially forgets about Lucas on two occasions, Mama’s creative elements keep it afloat. In addition to the ghoul’s solid F/X are a handful of dream sequences, each of which exhibit a sense of playfulness that’s missing from this overly serious film. The fresh manner with which Muscietti shifts between sleep and waking life is his work’s primary achievement, though his willingness to go a touch more morose than the PG-13 rating suggests yields additional unexpected delights. These bursts of imagination and minor frights manage to sustain attention throughout, but with few dependable assets, the film is merely a competent ghost story. Not nearly the Oscar-killer many feared, it’s nothing for Chastain to be ashamed of, though also not something to brag about on the red carpet.
Rated PG-13 for violence and terror, some disturbing images and thematic elements.
Mama is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.