Tales and reports of feral children have long been a subject of fascination, from Tarzan to famed 18th-century French case study Victor of Aveyron to disturbing contemporary accounts of neglect. It’s virtually impossible to imagine surviving through such circumstances — and yet we try.
First-time feature director Andy Muschietti’s supernatural thriller “Mama” gets really out there in its speculating, wondering what if abandoned kids were watched over by an angry ghost. It’s a kooky scenario laid out with impressive creepiness at points, as Muschietti expands on a previous short film under the guidance of producer/genremeister Guillermo del Toro. The frustration, though, is how much the movie leans on made-ya-jump scares and contrived plot devices when its quieter chills and already fraught setups are so potent.
The story opens with sketchy glimpses of a distraught businessman (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”) packing up his little girls, ages 3 and 1, and driving off into the snowy mountains. By the time their troubled path lands them in a remote cottage, it’s clear that he’s done some awful, violent things, and he isn’t through yet. Cut to a scary, shadowy figure intervening — emphatically. Then cut again to five years later, when missing Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse) are finally found. The animalistic way they skitter around the cabin is eerily effective, as is a smart credit sequence using children’s drawings to fill in those lost years. Clearly, it’s going to be a hell of a reacclimation.
That job falls to the girls’ long-searching boho uncle, Luke (Coster-Waldau again), and his rock-chick girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain, all tatted up and harshly dyed). They swap their loft for a suburban colonial conveniently arranged by a psychologist on the case (Daniel Kash) and begin playing house — just them and the freaky tagalong spirit who begins manifesting herself through black moths and peripheral-vision teases. But oh, let’s be real — it’s Annabel playing house, as the filmmakers can’t sideline her man fast enough. (And why bother with the provocative idea of making the uncle a look-alike if you’re not going to develop it?)
Despite the various rote touches, Chastain does strong, nuanced work inhabiting her ironic situation. Here she is, an attitudinal woman with zero interest in kids who’s suddenly responsible for a pair who couldn’t be rougher work — and for her trouble she gets to be the hate object of a jealous ghost. Young Charpentier and Nelisse are also pretty remarkable in roles that hinge on stunted expressiveness. The story even half succeeds at having its macabre, tragedy-burdened spirit (Javier Botet, behind the effects) do some climactic heartstring-tugging. We might feel the pull more if we weren’t so beat from indulging the tired stuff.