★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Iris K. Shim
A quiet and contemplative affair that sadly just remains a quiet and contemplative affair. No highs, no lows, and few scares.
Umma, released in 2022 from Sony Pictures, follows a staid and rather plain mother-daughter relationship. Amanda, passively played by Sandra Oh (Gremlins: Secret of the Mogwai), is an amateur bee-keeper/accountant who has chosen to live way off the grid with her daughter, Chrissy (Fivel Stewart).
Amanda has a curious relationship with her daughter, and weirdly, electricity. Her daughter has a curious relationship with the locals, and not surprisingly, her mom. Both have a curious and secret-laden relationship with each other.
Early in Umma, Amanda is visited by her uncle from South Korea who informs her that her mother, AKA Umma, is dead. He relays a suitcase with ceremonial robes, a mask, and her mother’s remains. Has Amanda’s mom become a ghost? Is she inhabiting her? What’s the deal with Amanda’s fixation with electricity? All these answers are laid out in a series of tepid flashback sequences that moderately explain the fact that Amanda’s mom was overly protective and a little controlling.
Mind you, there’s nothing out of the ordinary here. Amanda’s mom didn’t torture her and she didn’t appear to abuse her. She was simply a foreigner in a foreign land trying to get by and ensure the very best for her daughter. So why the psychic/paranormal happenings surrounding her death? Umma either ran out of ideas to fully explore this horror element, or the intent behind the film wasn’t ever to really create a full-on spook show. Just spook show-lite.
The same matriarchal push-pull between Amanda and her mom eventually befalls Amanda and her daughter Chrissy. Maybe it’s just generational control issues, maybe Amanda’s truly haunted, or maybe she’s just a mom and like all parents she’s doing the best she can with what she has.
Thankfully, Umma has a relatively short 83 minute run time and doesn’t travel down too many of these paths to try and explain a deeper darker history of mother-daughter dynamics. But, even at 83 minutes, the film continually loses steam, exigence, and most importantly horror. Save for a couple (read: one and a half) jump scares, Umma easily could have been swapped out for a Hallmark family drama about the difficulties all generations face.
For a decently sized budget with some big names — Sondra Oh and Dermot Mulroney and Sam Raimi as a producer — Umma fails as a horror film. With too many unexplored and unexplained tendrils, the film buzzes around with very little vision or focus. In the end we’re left with boring little parable that we’ve already come to know. Parenting is hard.
Umma is Rated PG-13 and currently streaming on Netflix.