Updated: Feb 8, 2020
Ma is a psychological thriller mixed with a routine teen horror movie. The thriller part focuses on a woman who has never recovered from a trauma suffered when she was in high school. The horror part focuses on the usual group of stereotypical teenagers caught up in her attempts to capture what she never had. I was expecting a lot of jump scares and gore, but there really is not much of either. This is a very slow burning drama until the final act when it suddenly goes pretty crazy. It feels like the conclusion of a violent slasher movie, however that description does not fit what comes before it.
Maggie is a nice, shy girl who moves with her mother back to her mom’s hometown. She immediately makes friends with some popular kids and goes out searching for alcohol with them. They are able to convince a sweet-looking woman to buy it for them. Soon, since they cannot find a good drinking spot, she invites them to party in her basement. It is quickly apparent she is not the benevolent force she initially appears to be.
Most of the characters are either dumb or obnoxious. Thankfully, Octavia Spencer was cast as the title character. Though Sue Ann (called “Ma” by her new teen friends) is a caricature, Spencer plays her like this is a serious drama. It makes this far more compelling than it would have been otherwise. Her story has holes in it, but Spencer pulls the screenplay over many of them. Her motivations are understandable, if obvious. Oddly, her arc is accelerated to a ridiculous degree down the stretch, giving her an ending I did not believe. It is like a switch is flipped and she goes from disturbed and lonely to sadistic horror villain without a transition in between. Ma (93 minutes without the end credits) drags its feet too much in its first hour if that is where it was going for its last third.
It spends a lot of time on its teen characters, specifically Maggie. I give the movie credit for trying to give some of them backstories. Maggie, played sympathetically by Diana Silvers, is a bit bland, but likable. On the other hand, her friends all come from the cliché slasher playbook. Her mom, Erica, is loving, if slightly neglectful, yet Juliette Lewis suggests a more complicated relationship with her daughter than the movie really has time for. The rest of the cast is just there to draw Sue Ann’s ire or affection. Despite being the villain, this was clearly intended to be Spencer’s show and she does not disappoint.
The frustrating thing about Ma is it navigates deeper waters than these types of stories tend to. Race, gender, bullying, generational conflicts and peer pressure are all touched on in more than superficial ways. Sue Ann’s trauma (revealed gradually throughout the story) involves three of them, as does Maggie’s experiences. I thought the purpose was to display the similarities between them before concentrating on their differences for the climax. That idea is dropped by the end, if it even existed in the first place.
While there is a lot going on under the surface in Ma, in the end, it is mainly interested in being an early summer thrill ride. Unfortunately, it is not particularly thrilling. The background is more intriguing than the foreground, but that stuff gets completely pushed aside by the closing insanity. If you do choose to see it, at least you will have Octavia Spencer, using her pleasant screen persona to malevolent ends, to entertain you. She is very good.
2½ out of 5
Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann
Diana Silvers as Maggie
Juliette Lewis as Erica
Corey Fogelmanis as Andy
McKaley Miller as Haley
Luke Evans as Ben
Gianni Paolo as Chaz
Dante Brown as Darrell
Directed by Tate Taylor
Written by Scotty Landes