Cast: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans, Dante Brown
Director: Tate Taylor
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Ma, the latest horror thriller from the Blumhouse brand is trash, but what kind of trash is it? The trailer promises meme-worthy sensationalism or at the very least, a creepy slice of pulp, but Tate Taylor’s film sadly offers neither. This is one of those cases where the casting of Octavia Spencer in the titular role as a mentally unstable woman harboring a painful past is really the only thing worth mentioning, since the script by Scotty Landes may as well have been written by one of the dim-witted teen characters populating a good portion of the running time.
The story centers around Maggie (Diana Silvers) returning to the hometown of her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), as she fits in with a group of fellow high schoolers. Soon they are attempting to score booze from the adult townsfolk, happening upon Sue Ann (Spencer) walking her dog near the local liquor store. Hesitant at first, Sue Ann eventually buys them the goods, but later rats them out to the local authorities by giving away their drinking hub. This sets in motion a series of events in which she convinces these underage kids to party in her basement, opening things up for a series of drug-addled high school ragers. Going by the nickname “Ma”, Sue Ann provides the party spot under the condition they don’t go upstairs. To say she’s up to something is an understatement.
But what exactly is this kindly, though seemingly lonely, older woman up to? Well, to say that Ma is harboring secrets is besides the point, since the film spends its first hour alternating between scenes of the teenagers reciting painfully wooden dialogue with Ma working at a vet clinic while obsessing over her new “friends” via social media. Once flashbacks of a young Sue Ann enduring high school bullying and assault back in the 1980s start rolling in, the film’s laughable conceit becomes clear. From this point on, Ma goes from being dull to offensive; using sexual assault in order stigmatize victimhood as a path toward mental illness. If one were being generous, you could say the filmmakers have good intentions here by showing how such experiences at a young age can warp a person’s self-worth and cause major psychological damage, but demonizing Ma as the defacto villain is beyond misjudged.
Spencer’s cunning performance allows for more nuance than would normally be afforded such a reductive character, but what is the point if the film she’s trapped inside is so inept on nearly every level? Taylor’s direction is clumsy, the teenage actors unbearable, and the aforementioned script is a hot mess of detours and laughable coincidences. Of course, the B-movie potential of the film’s central idea could have been wildly entertaining and possibly even subversive had Sue Ann simply been able to exist as a person in the world rather than being used a pawn for plot machinations. There’s even a dark “secret” she’s hiding upstairs (a thread introduced early which pays off limply during the ultra-violent finale), but the logistics surrounding her actions are so baffling that the whole thing comes off as a lame red herring.
Additionally, Ma could have leaned into political signifiers by embracing its racial elements—Sue Ann was seemingly the only black person at her high school and there’s even a token black kid in the present day teenage group—but the film is afraid of such implications. Taylor and company could also have just made a loopy genre movie giving an Academy Award winner the freedom to be deranged while using social media, but too much time is spent on high school romance, Luke Evans’s douche bag dad, and Maggie’s overprotective mom to truly lean into the Spencer show. In the end, Ma is little more than a half-baked revenge story in which a victim narrative is used as fodder for psychosis topped off with a weak social allegory. As such, audiences are better off drinking alone than spending any time with this scare-free, tonally confused turkey.