Once, years ago, there was a frightened daddy who did bad things. He lost money, hurt friends, killed Mommy, and grabbed his two tiny daughters and ran. But when daddies drive too fast on slippery, icy mountain roads, even scared little girls know that more bad things are bound to happen.
And they do.
The car slides off the road and crashes. And the little ones are left to follow their bleeding daddy as he limps through the snow-covered woods. Luckily they find an old run-down shack in those dark and cold woods. And Daddy starts a fire in the fireplace to keep them warm. But all is still not well.
Daddy cries. And he sits looking at the gun in his hand. And he tells his big girl Victoria to look outside at the snowy trees. And he lifts the gun up to the back of her head.
Then something happens. And Daddy is gone.
Some five years later, a pair of men come upon an old battered cabin in the woods. It's a crumbling shack that they're surprised they've never seen before. Especially with all the hunting they've done near there. But what's even more surprising is the fact that the shack isn't empty. It holds two young girls. Two filthy, feral girls who growl and scamper on all fours like overgrown rats.
Once the girls are captured and taken back to civilization, the real odyssey begins. A prominent doctor studies their miraculous case. Their Uncle Lucas steps forward to take them in. But both men have so many questions: How do you actually care for a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old who are more beast than child? How do you reach them? For that matter, how did they possibly survive in those woods for five years?
The girls can't give many answers. But as they start to reclaim bits of the language they've lost, it's clear that both children believe they've had a protector for all that dark time. It's impossible, of course. There was no evidence of anyone else in that shack. But Victoria and her younger clinging sister, Lilly, have a name they keep invoking, a person they keep calling …
Mama is an intelligent film with strong statements to make about the life-changing impact of love and parenting.
Neither Lucas nor his live-in girlfriend, Annabel, are absolutely sure about their decision to take the girls in. Annabel is upset that she'll have to leave her rock band to care for the kids, though she does it anyway. But she definitely doesn't feel up to the task of being a "mom." When she thinks Lilly is calling her "Mama," she quickly says, "Don't call me that."
With time we see how even the slightest changes and small displays of affection from the girls start to melt Annabel's reserve—to the point where she becomes so passionately connected to them that she willingly and doggedly risks death to protect them. Lucas steps out into scary territory to be the girl's protective father figure. He drags himself out of a hospital bed to rescue them early on.
For the girls' part, they respond to Lucas (their dad's twin brother) and Annabel's affection. Victoria quickly recognizes and embraces Lucas—thinking he's her father at first. Then with time she tells Annabel she loves her, and moves to protect her from Mama's jealous rages. Even little Lilly changes somewhat. Annabel finds the girl half-frozen one morning, huddled under a tree in the yard. Annabel runs to grab her, and while the girl at first fights her embrace, she softens at the warmth of Annabel's breath and loving touch. The overall effect is one that lets the filmmakers explore the fear, jealosy and maternal longing women feel as they find purpose in the the nurturing of children.
In death, the girls' dad, Jeffrey, comes to his brother in a dream and pleads with him to "save my girls." That may seem sweet, but as with many ghost stories there's a dark and very twisted view of the spiritual world on display here. A researcher, for instance, who works with the respected psychologist Dr. Dreyfuss, tells him that "a ghost is an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself time and time again until it rights the wrong that has been done."
It's that "wrong"—a travesty involving the desiccated, skeletal remains of a baby—that supposedly gives Mama's spirit the ability to remain in this world and strike with such rage-filled power. She uses a dank spreading rot, populated with black moths, to infect the areas where she resides. She leaps and moves in a series of contorted, twisted and physically impossible ways that deliver their own sense of horror.
[Spoiler Warning] We eventually realize Lilly is inextricably linked to Mama when we see her joyfully interact with this darkness and rot, to the point of eating the fluttering moths like candy.
Annabel wears the formfitting jeans and T-shirt garb of a rock 'n' roller. Her shirts and nightwear are sometimes a bit revealing—often exposing cleavage and sometimes her bra. At one point she and Lucas start passionately kissing on their bed. She begins pulling off his shirt but stops at the sight of a shadowy figure in the bedroom doorway.
We rarely see anything grisly or overly bloody. A fatal shooting, for instance, is represented by a few drops of blood on a bedroom floor. But there is a dark and ominous sense of death hanging in the cinematic air. A dream/vision sequence reveals a nun being stabbed with a knitting needle. Rotting decay spreads over her chest and face. A crazed woman grabs a small baby and leaps off a high cliff in that dream as well. We see two men have their necks viciously snapped in the shadows. Another has sharp talon-like fingers driven into his chest. A dead body floating facedown in a lake bursts open, spewing hundreds of moths.
When the girls are first rescued from the wild, they're both covered in scrapes and bruises. Lucas is sent sprawling over an upstairs railing, and we see him violently thump down the steps, smashing his head along the way and landing bloodied on the floor below. Mama attacks the girls' Aunt Jean, taking possession of her body. We later see the woman awkwardly moving—as if her internal skeletal structure was snapping and dislocated. She then crumbles over in a pile of loose flesh and bone.
Jeffrey's car flies over a snowy hill and crashes into the trees below. We hear a radio report that he shot and killed two business associates. After a particularly ugly dream of a screaming and clawing Mama, Annabel wakes with a large bruise on the back of her neck. Later, while fully awake, Mama attacks her, driving her to the floor and seemingly sucking life out of her. Later still, Mama buffets Annabel and repeatedly pushes her face to the ground as the young woman reaches to rescue the girls.
As mentioned, Jeffery puts a gun to the back of his daughter's head. [Spoiler Warning] Lilly is ultimately wrapped up in Mama's dark cloak-like form and dropped off a high cliff to her death—they both burst into billows of moths when they hit.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word, a handful of s-words and several abuses of God's and Jesus' names. Two or three uses each of "h-ll," "d‑‑n," "a‑‑" and "b‑‑ch" round out the coarse language.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Annabel drinks a beer with one of her bandmates.
Other Negative Elements
In an attempt to find out what's been going on between Dr. Dreyfuss and the girls, Annabel slips into his office and steals a box full of recordings and files. A seemingly always-bruised Lilly plays with and eats bugs and filth.
In today's age of torture-porn, chain saw slashers and single-camera Paranormal creepers, it would be understandable if you heard the words horror flick and immediately imagined a gory blood-gush or a low-tech, shaking-camera jump-fest. But producer Guillermo del Toro (who directed Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies) and new director Andrés Muschietti have crafted something a bit different.
This is more of a glossy "crawl on the ceiling" ghost story mixed with a richly nuanced Grimm's fairy tale. It has well-developed characters you care for, innocent children you fear for, a semi-happy ending you hope for and an incredibly creepy monster you love to loathe … and kind of understand at the same time. It's a film that surprisingly underscores the importance of self-sacrificial caregiving and the transforming power of a kind soul. It layers on lessons in what should happen to a grown-up's heart when children need them. It even promotes adoption in its own scary way. It's both emotional and effectively pulse-raising.
Mama is also a pic that basks in its own ridiculous premise and proudly parades a fiendishly twisted spirituality. It relishes every raw-throated scream and black talon-handed neck snap. It yelps its coarse language, gobbles up innocence and skitters around your tiptoeing mind with feral intensity.
And those moments of dramatic grace and storybook elegance sometimes get lost in a deep, dark, cinematic wood.