Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Scotty Landes, Tate Taylor
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, Luke Evans, McKaley Miller, Missi Pyle, Corey Fogelmanis, Marjay Ross, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Rated R | Minutes: 99
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Ma can be seen as a cautionary tale about horrible teens doing horrible things because they are horrible people whose actions will have dire repercussions. The reality of this is that when a bully’s actions go unpunished, it is only a matter of time before the sins of the past come back to haunt the person. It’s a pretty sound premise for a horror film.
The only problem is, Ma lacks structure, balance, and cannot figure out what exactly it wants to be because it feels like there are two separate films going on at once. Director Tate Taylor’s latest effort brings out the best in Octavia Spencer, who plays the titular character, but she’s surrounded by characters who lack depth. My full review below.
Ma opens with Maggie (Diana Silvers) and her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), who move to Erica’s hometown in rural Ohio. While Erica works at a casino to provide for the family, Maggie is left to be with her newfound high school friends. And since there isn’t much to do in this small town, the teens try to get adults to buy alcohol for them. Denied by multiple people, they eventually come across Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a lonely veterinary aide who helps purchase those drinks. Thinking that she’s made a group of new friends, Sue Ann offers a place for them to party at her place. But when Sue Ann is unable to let things go while the kids are at school, she starts to exhibit odd behaviors, which include stalking, constant texting, and an obsessive fixation on the teens.
In between the parties, we get to see flashes of Sue Ann’s past, which reveal that she was a victim of bullying and social rejection. As the film starts to unravel – quite literally – we get to see that a lot of the adults in this small town aren’t as innocent or homey as they make themselves out to be. Instead, they play a part in Sue Ann’s tragic past and why she is so desperate to become a part of a clique at any cost.
It’s great to see Spencer play a character that we have never really seen her do before. For the most part, she’s done well as characters who dispense wisdom with a dash of sassiness. However, she ends up doing most of the heavy lifting in Ma. She is given such a tragic backstory that will allow audiences to sympathize her and, perhaps, to a certain degree, understand her justifications behind her motivations. You can see and hear that in the nuances of the character whether that be in the way she looks at others or the tone of her voice. It’s compelling character work from Spencer.
But that character work seems wasted, since Sue Ann is surrounded by uninteresting characters. Aside from Maggie and Sue Ann, the rest of the cast isn’t given much to work with and are relegated to one-dimensional and very shallow people. Making things worse is the fact that the film seems to be at war with itself. Maggie is painted as the lead protagonist very early on, with Sue Ann as a side character. But without any notice at all, the film turns its attention to Sue Ann, and uses those flashbacks as an attempt to justify her actions and add layers to her character. That seems to be a moot point when she does some sinister things that seem to go very unnoticed, even for a small town like this one. Then we see Maggie and her friends do the typical cliched awful things we’re used to seeing teenagers do in movies. And it is a vicious cycle that you cannot get out of. So it’s unclear who the audience should be rooting for in this because the film doesn’t give them one.
So, Ma ends up being this slow-burn horror suspense thriller that doesn’t quite live up to any of its scares it delivers because its attention is divided and it tries to figure out who it should be about. But maybe the film wasn’t meant for me. Honestly, it feels like a large-scale anti-bullying film with some notable actors who play characters who have done some horrible things and refuse to apologize for it, even as adults who know better. And it is a conceit that could have worked had it been handled with care.