After their father murders their mother, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and Lilly (Isabelle Nélisse) are left in a cabin in the woods, raised by a specter they call “Mama.” Their uncle, Jeffery (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), never gives up the search and when they are finally located adopts them, though his tattooed, bass-playing girlfriend girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), isn’t so pleased. But as Annabel warms up to the girls, their other "Mama" gets jealous.
Introducing the evil spirit not five minutes into the film, Mama struggles to keep up the tension and fear. Muschietti creates a foreboding atmosphere, navigating the interior of the house with long tracking shots and generating a sense that terror might be lurking in the very walls. Despite the star power of Chastain and Game of Thrones’ Coster-Waldau, the film’s successes rely on the performances of the young girls, especially Nélisse. As the younger sibling, Lilly, she plays a child who never acclimatizes to human interaction, acting like a feral animal, scampering on all fours and springing from dark corners. But ultimately, much like Annabel’s Ramones and Misfits t-shirts, much of Mama is too on the nose to be genuinely terrifying.