Written by: Scotty Landes
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“There’s probably something wrong with me..."
Ma is a prime example of a movie that exists—and hinges upon—one specific purpose. Without knowing the exact details, I can only imagine that the pitch began and ended with “Octavia Spencer goes full psycho-biddy on a group of unsuspecting teenagers.” You don’t really need much more than that, and Ma doesn’t exactly offer much more than that. Indeed, most of its appeal lurks within that one note, and everyone involved is more than content to riff the hell out of that one note, resulting in a film that’s both familiar and inspired all at once—at least until it pushes to the edge of high, blood-soaked camp before timidly stepping back and falling just short of greatness.
I’d still hesitate to call Ma a complete disappointment, though: its script its tightly-wound and built on a solid hook that allows for plenty of tension and discomfort in the setup. Following her divorce, Erica Thompson (Juliette Lewis) has moved back to her hometown with her 16-year old daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) in tow. Eager to make friends, Maggie falls in with a crowd that does what all teenagers in podunk towns do: get drunk with the assistance of an adult willing to score them some booze. They eventually settle for Sue Ann (Spencer), an unassuming veterinarian assistant whose initial reluctance escalates to a disconcerting eagerness: not only does she buy the kids’ stockpile of alcohol, but she also invites them to party in her own basement, which soon becomes a popular hangout spot—even though something is clearly off about this seemingly well-meaning woman.
Had this film been produced 40 or 50 years ago, it almost certainly would have boasted one of those great, ludicrous psycho-biddy titles in the order of What’s the Matter With Helen? or Whoever Slew Aunty Roo? What’s Wrong With Ma? would have been apt since that’s exactly the trashy intrigue that guides most of the film. You watch it secure in the immediate knowledge that Sue Ann (who eventually adopts the name “Ma” at the behest of the kids) just isn’t right. You don’t even have to look for some latent darkness lurking beneath her outgoing façade, not when she’s dishing out pizza rolls and forcing a kid to strip at gunpoint as part of a “joke” the very first time they’re in her basement. The only questions is just how far off the rocker she is.
Both Spencer and the script play things just coyly enough that you can’t help but wonder about the specifics. Spencer’s clearly relishing a role that allows her to cut loose and all but wink at the audience; at any given moment, Ma is coiled up with a thousand-yard-stare from hell or snapping to with brief flashes of her obvious psychosis. Even her most innocuous moments—like performing the robot on her makeshift basement dance floor—simmer with sinister intent. She’s essentially Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” theory writ large, wound up by this intriguing script and just waiting to explode, and the script is exceedingly patient in building towards the gory pyrotechnics.
In the meantime, Spencer is free to steal the show with a delightfully demented turn that grows more nuanced when it becomes clear that Sue Ann isn’t just some random, inexplicable psycho operating in the rural south. Before the script makes this explicit, Spencer effortlessly conveys this woman’s fragile, lonely existence. A hint of sadness lurks in her desperation, and her bug-eyed mania initially seems to be more tragic than manic. Ma feels uncomfortable precisely because of this—here you have a woman who seems to be delicately tiptoeing the line between “weirdly but harmlessly inappropriate” and “supremely fucked up,” and you’re not sure if you should feel sorry for her or hope she earns some well-deserved comeuppance once the kids grow wise to her act.
The screenplay edges the audience in both directions. Ma’s insistence that the kids don’t wander upstairs and the inevitable, strange noises that emanate from above confirm that she’s definitely up to no good. On the other hand, intermittent flashbacks to Sue Ann’s own childhood days paint a different, more sympathetic story by revealing that she was a shy, awkward teenager perpetually on the outside looking in. Gradually, this backstory becomes the thrust of Ma, as the script redirects the audience’s intrigue and strings them along the mystery surrounding Sue Ann’s trauma, subtly shifting the main narrative with each new revelation. Eventually, it sends the audience in yet another direction by revealing Ma is actually an agent of vengeance with a method to her madness; what’s more, at least some of her lunacy and bloodlust are completely justified, if not downright rousing.
All of these threads tangle together somewhat ungracefully for the climax, when the proverbial bomb goes off and unleashes the film’s coiled, pent up energy with a series of revelations and violent outbursts. Some surprises await, though I’m not sure any of them are the absolute shockers seemingly promised by the marketing that insists you see Ma before anyone spoils it. In fact, the biggest reveal isn’t a topsy-turvy twist so much as an eventual deus ex machina: it’s fine, but you sometimes feel like Ma leaves a lot of potential schlock on the table.
Between the low body count and the somewhat tame (and weirdly abrupt) final confrontation, Ma doesn’t quite boast the payoff it deserves. Some fleeting outbursts of violence (involving vehicular homicide and an, um, unconventional blood transfusion) provide a glimpse into the wild, unhinged movie it could be: a weird, perverse, distasteful, but unrepentantly entertaining exploitation throwback. For whatever reason, though, Ma never quite ascends to such lofty (or low, depending on your persuasion) heights. After 80 minutes of intense build-up, it lightly sizzles instead of exploding in an over-the-top torrent of sheer lunacy. Perhaps because Sue Ann is simultaneously tragic and deranged, the film settles by splitting the difference: she gets what she deserves while remaining somewhat sympathetic and giving her victims what they deserve too. Everyone gets what they deserve—except, maybe, for viewers wanting Ma to go a little bit further.
But to be fair, Ma will still feel quite outrageous compared to a lot of studio horror fare that plays to multiplex audiences. It’s nothing if not distinctive, thanks mostly to the sheer amount of charisma and personality Spencer injects into it. For his part, Taylor isn’t content to simply hitch his wagon to his star’s theatrics, as he crafts a tight, thrilling ride with plenty of completely earned jolts and laughs. Weaving tension, humor, and genuine gravitas through such a demented story and still managing to have a lot of fun is a tricky proposition that he mostly pulls off with aplomb. Ma never bores, even when it’s stranding you with its ill-fated teens, who are perfectly nice but disposable in that slasher movie kind of way. The only real problem is that Ma doesn’t dispose with enough of them.
I won’t call that a missed opportunity, exactly; rather, it’s something that could be rectified with a sequel. Because if there’s one thing that is abundantly clear, I’d definitely watch Spencer continue these exploits in Ma 2: Fuck Them Kids.
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