Watching movies for so many years has taught me that if two characters are extremely happy, then their paradise is about to be destroyed. This is what I predicted after seeing Amanda (Sandra Oh), the mother, and Chrissy (Fivel Stewart), her daughter, reading a book together. Two people side by side reading a single book? I don’t think that’s a very good idea. But these two don’t seem to be bothered, even though one of them is apparently a slow reader. On top of that, as soon as Chrissy lovingly lays her head on Amanda’s shoulders, you start to strongly believe that something is about to go wrong. Of course, the ominous opening lends a hand in fueling your thoughts.
Amanda and Chrissy live on a rural and isolated farm. They are beekeepers who make a living by extracting honey from the bees and selling it through Danny (Dermot Mulroney). Why beekeeping? Because one day, “Chrissy came home with a book about beekeeping and became obsessed with the idea.” Amanda, being a good mother, turned her daughter’s wish into a reality, even though she hated bees and the sound that came from them. She can do anything for Chrissy and wants just one thing in return: She should always stay with her.
That’s why Amanda is disturbed after finding out that Chrissy is planning to leave her. She wants to go to a college and has taken the application form. There is a fantastic scene where Amanda hammers a nail while Chrissy fills up the form on a typewriter (there are no electronic gadgets in the house because Amanda is allergic to electricity). The scene is edited in such a manner that every keystroke registers like a nail hammered to burst Amanda’s delusional bubble of living with her child forever. There are other chilling visuals. For instance, a hanbok looks like a person in the dark. The words, “disobedient little girl” is soon followed by a torchlight falling on Amanda’s mother’s photograph. You feel as if the photo is alive and keeping an eye on Chrissy in the basement. It creeps you out.
Weird things happen in the background in the dark, like Amanda sees her mother sitting on the chair at night and the ghostly figure disappears by the light from the thunderstorm. You peel your eyes, lean forward, and scan the frame for spooky details. But I would advise you to maintain your distance from the screen. Because the dim night scenes instantly (and abruptly) give way to bright daylight. However, what hurts the most is that Umma fizzles out near the finish line. You get the done-and-dusted ghost scenes where someone is suffocated by a cloth and bodies are dragged by an invisible force. Amanda’s mom appears as a spirit, and her face looks as if shot through a scary Snapchat filter.
Sandra Oh, though, prevents the movie from becoming a total disappointment. She handles the shift from a caring mother to a scary mother with finesse. She gives the impression of being a totally different person after being possessed by her mother. It’s nice that we are getting films like Turning Red and Umma that are basically informing us that our parents are nothing but benign monsters (Amanda takes Chrissy’s hand and gently says, “I’m your mother. I’m the only one who is gonna tell you the truth. And the truth is you can’t do it.” Ouch.). They, too, are human beings with flaws, and we should stop treating them as if they were gods.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.