How do you dispose of a body? It’s a problem that’s driven a lot of classic thrillers over the years, from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry to Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave and a memorably disgusting early episode of Breaking Bad. Add in some Fargo-style escalating insanity and you’ve got Dear Mama, as an Amsterdam housewife and a teenage thief find their lives permanently entwined thanks to a corpse that just won’t go away.
Nurse Helen (Rifka Lodeizen) has a lot on her mind. Even during a birthday party at work, her attention keeps wandering to grisly images of meat being sliced up by a workbench power saw. And with good reason: the night before, she and her husband, wealthy catering entrepreneur Werner Möhring (Guy Clemens), came home to find their house being robbed. She did what anyone would do – she panicked, pulled a gun and shot criminal Brian (Tarik Moree) dead in the middle of their home. Okay, maybe not everyone would do that.
Unbeknownst to her, Brian had a lookout parked outside, 18-year-old Ralf (Shahine El-Hamus). As lookouts go, Ralf wasn’t quite the best: while he saw the Möhrings come home, he couldn’t warn Brian in time. Nor could he see what was happening inside, so when he heard a bang he fled in panic, with no idea exactly what had happened to his co-criminal. And it quickly turns out that Ralf isn’t someone who can let a mystery go.
Dear Mama is a series about two people with big problems. With Brian dead on the floor, Werner says calling the police is a bad idea. Helen’s gun is unlicensed, so they’ll probably both go to jail, and who’ll take care of the children then? Better just to hide the body in the freezer and cut it up for disposal later. Helen, who is clearly not dealing with things at all well, agrees.
Meanwhile, Ralf is investigating the case of the missing co-criminal the best way he can, which turns out to largely involve him wandering around asking if anyone’s seen Brian lately. Things become even worse when he runs into Mick (Vincent van der Valk). He’s a dangerous man and Brian owed him a lot of money; with Brian now missing and Ralf asking about him, logically – according to Mick’s logic at least – Ralf now owes him the money. Now Ralf really does need to find Brian.
Dear Mama constantly skips between these two plots, relentlessly cranking up the tension on both sides. Rather than shift focus to weave in other subplots, it stays ruthlessly focused on the central conflict. Even their home situations mostly serve to make things harder for our two leads; it’s soon very clear that neither of them can go to others for help.
For Ralf, things were looking pretty bleak even before Brian’s disappearance. He lives at home with his parents, and his plans to become a mechanic don’t seem all that realistic considering he spends his days hanging out with his mates. It’s hardly surprising he’s turned to crime – it’s his only option when it comes to making money. Problem is, he’s not very good at it, and now he’s definitely in over his head. And why exactly did Brian choose that particular house to rob anyway?
As for Helen, she has nowhere to turn. While she’s torn apart by guilt, her husband Werner is seemingly devoid of a conscience or sense of morality. Her three kids are worse, grim parodies of selfish teenagers, with her eldest Sara (Aiko Beemsterboer) constantly eye-rolling and expressing her disgust when she’s not openly swearing at her mother. And while Helen’s got a nice line in flirtation with charming surgeon Lex (Barry Atsma), casually mentioning “by the way, I just killed a burglar” seems like a good way to leave that romance deader than Brian.
This kind of drama needs strong performances to keep audiences engaged. Dear Mama definitely delivers. El-Hamus does a great job of making Ralf a charmingly desperate crook with shabby charisma to spare, but it’s Lodeizen’s performance as Helen that steals the series. Constantly on the verge of a total breakdown, she’s wound so tight you expect her to snap at any moment. Having to creep around with a sack full of body parts definitely isn’t good for her mental health; getting away with murder is the only way she’s ever going to get a decent rest.
Dear Mama is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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