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After a financial crash at his company, Jeffrey, the father of young Victoria and baby Lilly, takes them onto the road to escape prosecution for his crimes. The route is snowy, and he ends up crashing his car, but luckily, there’s an abandoned cabin quite near where they crash, so he takes the girls there. He’s a man at the end of his rope, and he’s planning on murdering his kids before committing suicide, but his homicidal intentions are interrupted by Mama. She stops him from harming the girls, and she takes care of them as best she can for the next five years.
Jeffrey has a twin brother, Lucas. He’s been looking for his brother’s children since they went missing five years ago, and spending all the money his brother left him doing it. Lucas has a girlfriend, Annabel, who starts out the film taking a pregnancy test and being happy that she’s not pregnant.
At essentially the same time as this is happening, the two men Lucas has hired to find the girls finally stumble upon the cabin where the kids now live. At this point I’m wondering how they missed both the car embedded between the trees and the cabin beyond it if they’ve searched this area before. Maybe they just suck at searching, I don’t know.
They discover Lilly and Victoria, who are filthy and feral, but have flowers in their hair, and while they’re not exactly healthy, they’re not dead like they should be. Someone has obviously been taking care of them, as evidenced by the cherry pits in a huge pile on the floor, but no one is visible. The kids go into medical/psychological care for a while, and after a bit of family drama and a shady intervention by Dr. Dreyfuss, it’s eventually decided that they’ll go to live with Lucas (and Annabel, by extension.)
The kids are understandably psychologically damaged and frightened, but Victoria is a less wild than Lilly, who won’t even sleep in a bed and who eats nothing but cherries for a while after first coming home. Both are still mentioning a figure called Mama, who Dr. Dreyfuss is intensely interested in learning more about. But Mama isn’t only a figure made up by the girls, and while she’s a protective figure, she doesn’t distinguish between those who are trying to harm the girls and those who want to help them.
Mama is closer to a thriller or some kind of modern faery tale than a horror movie, though it definitely plays on fears that must be present if you’re a parent or a guardian in some way to young children. While there are frightening moments and a few jump scares, there’s a lot of focus on the relationship between the girls and Lucas and Annabel. You also learn a lot about Mama and how she and the girls are tied together and what that means for all of them.
Mama is also not a typical monster, and while there’s some attempt to create sympathy for her in the film, she hangs on not only to her love of children in the afterlife but also her selfishness, which manifests itself as jealousy. I was hoping, instead of going the old ghost route, that maybe Mama would end up being some sort of mythic woodland creature, but that didn’t happen.
The movie also plays a bit with reality. When Victoria comes out of the forest, the first thing Lucas does is give her a pair of glasses, something she’d been without for the five years she spent in the cabin with Mama. This is her symbolic return to normalcy and society. It’s interesting that when Mama manifests, Victoria takes off her glasses before she looks at her. So while she may not understand what Mama is, she knows that there’s something wrong with her and she doesn’t want to see her with her glasses on.
As Victoria becomes re-accustomed to life in society, Mama becomes less needed by her, and this causes a breach not only between Victoria and Mama, but also between Victoria and Lilly. Lilly, who was only a baby when she went into the woods, is less attached to actual civilization and more to Mama. She’s still happy to see Mama when she shows up and is less afraid of her than Victoria, except when Mama is actually angry.
There’s some exploration of Annabel being forced to serve as a reluctant parent, but I felt it was a bit forced, especially since Lucas had to end up in the hospital to make it happen. Why wouldn’t Mama feel more threatened by Annabel, who’s a woman as she was, than Lucas? It annoyed me that they shoved him so blatantly out of the way to put Annabel in a situation where she was the sole caregiver. Why not just make her the relative and leave Lucas out entirely?
I did have some problems with the film, mostly in that when most of the time when Mama kills people, their bodies just disappear. Where does she take them? Into the walls? I’m fine if that’s the explanation, but we never get to know. Then there’s the important character who up and disappears and the characters never figure out what happens to her. I’m thinking some of these answers and more ended up getting deleted from the current cut of the movie and will reappear on the DVD when it comes out. But there’s also a lot of blatant “I want to ignore this strange thing that’s happening or this massive hole in the wall that bleeds black blood and is filled with moths and just go and eat breakfast” and that’s kind of annoying, especially if Dr. Dreyfuss had just owned up to wanting to discuss Mama or shared any of his findings with Lucas or Annabel.
The ending, which I want to discuss quite badly but will refrain from doing, is heartbreaking, but it’s foreshadowed by a few scenes, and really, I think it’s pretty much the only way Mama could’ve ended and still be a satisfactory film. I figured it was coming but it still bothered me when it happened. I’m still thinking about the ending, its implications and what it says about the characters in the film, and I think I might be for quite some time.