'Ma' Is a Big "Nah" Directed by Tate Taylor
Starring Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, McKaley Miller, Allison Janney
Published May 30, 2019This should probably go without saying, but listen up teenagers: if a clingy 40-something invites you to come party in their basement, don't go!
Ma stars Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann (aka "Ma"), a lonely veterinary tech who befriends a group of teenagers after they ask her to buy alcohol. Not only does she agree to get them booze, she offers up her basement as a hangout spot. The rules are simple: just don't go upstairs. Sounds innocent enough, right?
Almost immediately, Ma stumbles thanks to serious pacing issues. Ma's dark side is introduced clumsily, as she's a stalker from the get-go. In one of her first interactions with the teens, she pulls out a gun and forces one of the boys to strip naked. Then she's like "just kidding" and the kids are all like "HAHAHA GOOD ONE MA" and they go back to having a party. The idea that the kids wouldn't immediately shun Ma requires a major leap of logic.
We gradually learn more about Ma's backstory, and the only real twist is how mundane it all is: she was bullied as a teen, so now she's seeking acceptance from (and revenge against) the popular kids who once mocked her.
In the second half, Ma suddenly ramps up from mystery-thriller to bloody body horror, and the transition is so jarring that it's laughable. Even as a gross-out movie, Ma falls short: it's not smart enough to be a psychological thriller, and it's not gruesome enough to be torture porn.
Ma's only redeeming quality is its young actors. In particular, lead teen Diana Silvers is sympathetic and relatable as Maggie, a kid trying to fit in with the cool crowd at a new school. In an alternate universe, this might have been a decent teen drama. Juliette Lewis is underdeveloped as Maggie's struggling mom Erica, and while Octavia Spencer gives the title role the old college try, there's not much she can do with a script this clunky. Allison Janney presumably owed someone a favour, since she's hilarious in a bit part as Ma's boss.
On the bright side, Ma's attempts at creepy tension and shocking violence are so inept that it's quite funny. The audience at my screening was openly laughing — not in the way that horror fans laugh as a way to release tension, but because the whole thing was so ridiculous that it worked as a comedy.
In fact, the only truly horrifying part of the whole film was when one guy near the front turned around and viciously screamed "SHUT THE FUCK UP!" at all the people making fun of the movie. Now that's scary.