Ma | Tate Taylor | May 31, 2019
Ma, the latest release from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions (released via Universal Pictures) stars an unhinged Octavia Spencer in the titular role, wreaking havoc on young teens who use her basement as their drinking hangout.
It’s all set in motion with the arrival of Maggie (Diana Silvers, also seen last week in Booksmart), who just moved into this small Ohio town with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis), who also grew up there as a teenager. Maggie is the new kid at school, but quickly makes friends with a group of teenagers, who like to do what most teenagers do: drink, smoke, and party. Being underage, they desperately plead with customers outside the local liquor store to score them some coveted booze. They have no luck but seem to catch a break with the unassuming Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), who works as a Veterinary Assistant to Dr. Brown (Allison Janney), the local vet.
Sue Ann scores them all the booze they can dream of and does one better: offers them her basement as a drinking spot, under the guise of them having a safe place to do so. But this being a horror-leaning thriller with dumb unassuming teenagers doing dumb teenager things, they don’t suspect that she has ulterior motives. You see, Sue Ann also grew up in this town and knows many of the parents of Maggie’s friends, including her mom and Ben (Luke Evans), the father of Maggie’s love interest Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). These aren’t fond memories, rather the sort of trauma that has caused Sue Ann to harbor strong grudges years later.
At first, Ma’s basement is the cool place to be, one where they can throw a lavish banger without any fear of getting caught. But the fun times don’t last as soon Ma becomes obsessed with having the kids over to the point where she is showing up to their school pleading with them to party with her on a school night and acting like a scorned ex-lover when they start to grow tired of her clinginess. When they decide enough is enough and try to cut ties, you know that there is no way that she will let them off that easy.
Ma goes all in on the crazy campy nature of its premise, banking on the performance on the always reliable Octavia Spencer, who definitely delivers. The rest of the film? Not so much. Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up, and The Girl on the Train) based on a script Taylor co-wrote with Scotty Landes, Ma gets more ludicrous and ridiculous by the minute but isn’t nearly shocking or clever enough to provide these B-movie thrills in a refreshing manner. There are flashes of the screenplay having something to say about the sins of the past haunting the present but it doesn’t dig deep, and the theme is ultimately just used as fodder for Sun Ann’s motive for revenge, which feels all too familiar and never lands as it should.
It takes a while to get going, is unevenly paced, and, sadly, none of the teenage characters outside of Maggie are likable or nearly interesting enough to give a damn about. Yes, you expect teenagers to make poor choices and to venture into rooms when they should be going in the opposite direction, but I would still like to feel some sort of connection or facade of likability to care about them when the proverbial shit hits the fan. When it does, the results are limp and ineffective. What is supposed to be the big moment lands with a giant thud.
The final act of Ma does go all in on the crazy and the only reason it almost works in the dedication from Spencer’s performance and a likable leading turn from Silvers. But aside from that, the ridiculousness of it all had me completely checked out and I didn’t care what happened to any of them. I won’t be returning to Ma‘s for a nightcap anytime soon.