There is a certain kind of horror movie in which every character involved is basically an asshole, and hello, let’s talk about Ma.
SPOILERS FOR MA FOLLOW
Practically all the teenagers in this movie are narcissistic little jerks. All the adults in this movie, save two, are self-involved jagoffs. Titular character Ma (Octavia Spencer) herself is an entirely missed opportunity, a woman whose rage-filled motivations are somewhat understandable but whose violence toward her own family makes her impossible to root for. Tate Taylor, the dude who helmed The Help, Get On Up, and The Girl on the Train, co-wrote and directed this film, and he makes an attempt to combine the racially themed content of those first two films with the thriller feel of the latter. But without a real commitment to either, Ma is never truly scary nor emotionally engaging, despite Spencer’s best efforts at flirting with teenagers and going on a killing spree.
Ma goes like this: 16-year-old Maggie (Diana Silvers, of Booksmart) and her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis, underused but welcome) return to Erica’s hometown once her husband leaves her for another woman. Maggie is almost immediately befriended by a group of kids who seem to have nothing in common but a drinking problem, including the pushy Haley (McKaley Miller), who compliments Maggie’s ass as an opening line and later kisses her but denies being a lesbian; her boyfriend Chaz (Gianni Paolo), who the movie tells me is handsome; the token black friend Darrell (Dante Brown); and the mild-mannered Andy (Farkle from Girl Meets World!!!), whose mother died from pancreatic cancer and whose father Ben (Luke Evans) runs a local security company.
While Erica is working at a nearby casino to make ends meet, Maggie and her friends are drinking, vaping, and making out, and they’re given a basement hangout to do so when they are befriended by a vet tech named Sue Ann Ellington (Spencer). Sue Ann helps them out when they need an adult to buy them alcohol, and then she looks them all up on social media, and then she finds their phone numbers, and soon she’s sending them videos and leaving them boxes of alcohol outside of their school and dressing up into nicer clothes when the kids are coming over. (A hilarious tidbit: She buys them alcohol twice and invites them into her home, and only when all the kids are already standing around in her basement and beginning to drink DO MA AND THE TEENS FINALLY INTRODUCE THEMSELVES TO EACH OTHER.)
Darrell nicknames Sue Ann “Ma” (when asking if she has any Pizza Rolls for them to eat, natch), and when word spreads that this random woman is letting teens drink in her house, it becomes a party destination. But Maggie senses something is wrong! Is it when Ma forces Chaz to strip at gunpoint? Maybe! Is it when Ma puts hands on Maggie and Haley for using the upstairs bathroom? Probably! Or how about the dozens of texts she sends them, and the time she shows up at their school, or the fact that she’s totally lusting after Andy? (The teens describe her obvious flirtation with “That old chick wants to sit on your face. Your entire face!”)
In classic horror movie tradition, though, none of these teens think about telling their parents about this weird woman—even when they find out that she has a hidden daughter Genie (Tanyell Waivers), who she keeps locked in the upper floor of her home, confined to a wheelchair, and subject to shots, a special diet, and various physical threats. (Yes, this is clearly a Munchausen by proxy situation, as in that show on Hulu and that other show on HBO). THEY STILL GO BACK TO HER HOUSE AND PARTY, LIKE IDIOTS. IDIOTS!
But, as I said before, everyone in this movie is basically an idiot. Although I stand by the fact that Juliette Lewis’s Erica is the only character with any common sense, she still doesn’t check her daughter’s bedroom after grounding her, and so doesn’t realize that Maggie went out to confront Ma on her own, as if that would work. Andy’s dad Ben (Luke Evans, with a Southern accent only about 40% of the time) is introduced receiving a blowjob and turns out to be Ma’s obsession who was also her high school tormenter. He led Sue Ann on, told her to meet him in the janitor’s closet for a blowjob, and then actually subbed in another guy, humiliating Sue Ann in front of the entire school and sparking her resentment and desire for revenge. He just shows up at Sue Ann’s house on his own, although he’s described as having friends on the police force! Of course my dude dies while tied up in Sue Ann’s bed and forcibly receiving a transfusion with blood that she stole from Maggie’s dog! Because, get it, he was a dog to Ma!
That is the kind of creative murder going on in Ma, and I’m clearly being sarcastic here, because these deaths are ridiculously on-the-nose. Mercedes (Missi Pyle), another tormenter of Sue Ann’s? Ma smashes head-on into the jogging Mercedes while driving her beat-up pick-up truck, HITTING THE WOMAN NAMED AFTER A CAR, WITH HER CAR! When Ma captures all the kids and is torturing them? She slathers Darrell with white paint, because she says this group can only have one black friend. And she puts chains and collars on all the kids, too, as if they are her pets, because she is a vet tech, and we see her being cruel toward the animals, and obviously she would see all the kids as her property, too, if she equates them with animals. DID YOU GET IT.
There are kernels of interesting ideas in Ma, but Taylor passes on exploring any of them at length in his script. (Although I must commend him for a couple of split diopter shots that work quite well to contrast Ma with other characters in the film, as we saw Jordan Peele use masterfully in Us.) The flashbacks to Sue Ann’s past present her as the only black teen in the “bumfuck” town’s high school, but the movie suggests more that Ben humiliated her because she was a loner who dressed in old-fashioned clothes and had big glasses than because of her race. That’s not to say there needed to be a scene where a character was explicitly racist to Sue Ann, but the movie tiptoes up to the edge of that idea and doesn’t jump over, leading her character development feeling obviously unfulfilled. The same goes for her abuse of her daughter, and to how her mental breakdown seems to snap out of nowhere despite Ben, Andy, and Mercedes living in the same town as her for years. Things just happen in Ma without much logical sense, and the movie isn’t committed enough to this potentially gonzo premise to provide much visceral satisfaction.
What we’re left with, then, is an impressively against-type performance from Spencer in a movie that doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Are we supposed to cheer for Ma for getting revenge against the stereotypical white football player bully who humiliated her? Or, are we supposed to also think, “Huh, it’s weird that this lady fondles and makes out with teenagers, and tells them that “milk did [their] body good”? OR, am I supposed to be jealous of her real estate holdings, and curious about how she reconciles two very different decorating styles, one with a focus on African art and masks and another that centers ceramic cat figurines and goofy pet paintings? Can you get all that stuff at one store? That is my lingering impression of Ma: not a movie that I’m frightened or satisfied by, but one that makes me think, “I wonder if a town that is large enough to have a casino has more of a Pottery Barn or a HomeGoods vibe.” A question for our time.
Image sources (in order of posting): Universal, Universal