Ma, a new thriller from Blumhouse and director Tate Taylor (The Help), is so unhinged, so out there, that the amount of times I found myself thinking, “Wait, what?” eclipses any sense of the movie’s actual quality. Ma is trash, but the good kind — it’s fun all the way down.
The good news about Ma is that it will surprise any viewer at least once. The bad news is that the film, which turns Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water, The Help) into the boogeyman as her friendship with a group of local high school students sours, fails to turn the interesting ideas it posits into anything other than set dressing and missed opportunities.
When the trailer for Ma was first released, speculation ranged from worry that it would be enforcing the “angry black woman” stereotype to excitement that it would subvert the “mammy” archetype that black women so often are relegated to in cinema. The short answer to the question of what exactly Ma accomplishes is: neither. Instead, its immediate legacy is as prime fodder for a guilty pleasure list.
[Ed. note: this review contains mild spoilers for Ma.]
In her first and long overdue leading role, Spencer stars as Sue Ann, known as “Ma” to the local teenagers after she starts buying them booze and letting them use her basement for parties. Her attachment to the high schoolers, however, soon becomes obsessive, and not as innocent as it had initially seemed. That all of the kids she’s currying favor with are children of her former high school classmates is no accident.
In that respect, Ma is titled the same way that movies like Predator or Dracula are — Ma is the villain of the story, but she’s also the main attraction. The appeal of Ma isn’t to see if the teens (led by Booksmart’s Diana Silvers as the new girl in town) survive their new friendship; it’s in seeing exactly what Ma has in store for them, particularly as it becomes clear that Taylor has no intention of keeping the film on the rails. Ma is designed to make audiences scream in horror, squeal with delight, tweet in shock and meme screencaps into oblivion. Ma hits a sweet spot in the genre of schlock. It’s good enough to be enjoyable, and bad enough to go wild.
That enjoyment, however, may be a temporary thrill. The film dips a toe into ideas that it simply forgets, or doesn’t realize exist, later on. In an interview with GQ, Taylor said the movie doesn’t have any intentional commentary on race except for a specific scene in which a black teenager has his face painted white, which goes some way towards explaining why issues of race that crop up in the movie go ignored. It’s worth noting that Ma is one of precious few people of color in town, that Spencer has often been relegated to parts that have her playing non-horror variations on Ma, and that Ma is still ultimately an antagonist.
Spencer’s performance keeps the intentional shallowness from sinking the film. Given a leading role rather than being part of the supporting cast once again, she lets loose, committing fully to Ma’s manic energy — she does shots, she does the robot — without undercutting the more vulnerable emotions that Ma eventually reveals. Early on, a tense sequence sees her pulling a gun on a teenager who gives her a little too much guff, before laughing and playing it off as a joke. Her bait and switch between kindness and deadliness becomes almost Misery-like, particularly in the second half of the film as her quest for vengeance seems to fuel her past human limits.
Her performance enriches material that grows wobblier and wobblier as secrets are revealed. Like the recent The Perfection, Ma uses trauma as a keystone to its plot in a way that doesn’t feel entirely earned. It’s impossible to say any more without spoiling the film, but there’s something that doesn’t mesh between the movie’s positioning of Ma as a villain and its exploration of her motivation.
Ma is ultimately a case of razzle-dazzle. Other odds and ends (including a storyline clearly lifted from a recent real-life murder case which I won’t link so as not to give it away) further help to blind viewers to the holes in the story’s execution. It’s the kind of movie that’s a little too loud to be called a “guilty pleasure”; Ma is trashy in the best way possible, and ripe for gaining a following given just how crazy the plot becomes, how full of catchphrases the film is (“Don’t make me drink alone!”), and how easy the title is to yell and otherwise proliferate. (MAAAAAA!!!!!) Hopefully the next lead role Spencer gets will be as fun, and a little more thought out.