The story begins introducing Annabel (Jessica Chastain) and Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) fives years after the children-- Lucas' nieces have disappeared. Annabel and Lucas are a boho punk couple-- she, first introduced relieved at the negative results of a pregnancy test, is in a rock band, he is an artist, tormented himself in the tragic events of that past-- he continues to search for his family. Naturally, to the duress of Annabel, the girls are found-- wild and unresponsive-- and the movie charts the makings of its dysfunctional family. The mystery-- and the greatest moments of Mama-- belong in that tease that "Mama,"-- an eternally jealous, unstable thing seems to have followed them. The film asserts typical bumps in the night stabs of suspense, most of which are quite liberally stolen from superior films-- but they mostly work, as Muschietti masters a polished and stately look matched with a nicely shock-proof sound design.
There's an early sequence of nicely bent mystery and playfulness-- one that feels like the work of a young Spielberg-- in an elongated shot of happy Lilly tugging and coyly playing with "Mama." The trick is we only see one side of the shot, but it invites the audience to suggest that "Mama" is a villain of terror and humanity-- a quirky quality that gives the film its slightest uptick. It certainly also helps to have an actress like Chastain front and center, who in a black punkette wig and fake tats still manages to finesse soul and poise in her first for-the-pay junky movie. She bridges further humanity and imbues Annabel with a tangible central conflict in a character lacking maternal nature thrust into this scary new role-- there's a slight metaphor that the film wants to hit home.
I do wish Mama had a more satisfying conclusion-- the film is better as a tease than as a reveal. Yet even with a premise, one that's just as preposterous as say, Ringu or The Others, that elicits enough gentle stabs at the chest, it's still an unfortunate thriller that's all dressed up with no place to go. C+