By Ryen Thomas
June 1, 2019
I can imagine that when actress Octavia Spencer first read the script for Ma she saw in the horrifying character of Sue Ann the perfect vehicle for trading out the warm, goody-goody mama persona she normally plays in Hollywood. Spencer has won and been nominated several times for those past parts. She’s even played a maternal interpretation of God in The Shack. In Ma, however, she finally gets to serve up some cringe-worthy motherly moments in a devilish role.
Tate Taylor directed Spencer in both Ma and The Help. In The Help, Taylor gave us a peek of the actress channeling her dark side for a moment, when she trades in humble pie for vengeance toward someone she loathed. If you like what Spencer did there, then you can expect from Ma a full dose of some delightfully wicked behavior that would make Kathy Bates from Misery give a thumbs up.
Young actress Diana Silvers stars in the part of Maggie Thompson. She’s new to town and awkwardly works her way into a new social scene with the help of her mother, Erica, played by Juliette Lewis. Lewis is known for playing iconic roles in movies beloved by Generation X so it’s nice to see the film deliver some heavy nostalgia by pairing her up with the next generation of teenagers.
Taylor does a great job establishing Erica, Maggie and Sue Ann as nuanced characters but outside of them, we have a supporting cast rounded out by doe-eyed teenagers who are as worthless, flat, and dumb as cardboard cutouts. It’s expected for thrillers like this to mainly depict archetypes of high schoolers, but in Ma the supporting players make choices that screw logic and character development just for the sake of dumping scary scenes into the narrative.
Spencer’s Sue Ann turns her basement into a speakeasy for kids and, like the Pied Piper, easily lures in pleasure-seekers to party (with her) and partake in unadulterated fun as long as they follow her terms. Despite the teens eventually questioning Ma’s intentions, they don’t really give her much conflict and Ma never has to work hard to play on her fatal attraction to them.
Ma uses clichéd horror tropes, bumps and jumps to have us wonder whether or not Sue Ann is unhinged or just misunderstood. The problem is, we can see the thrills coming a mile away. Flashbacks clumsily create lazy connections between the characters and the more revelations are forced upon us, the more the film loses steam. Ma muddles its way to a dud of an ending that leaves us unsatisfied with we’ve learned about whatever psychology drives Sue Ann’s horrific impulses.
For those hoping to see Octavia Spencer in a role that easily extends her brand, expect some nice moments with creepy smiles and crazy eyes and glares from across the room. But overall, due to paper-thin motivations, we unfortunately get stereotypes and a predictable yet incoherent plot that’s soft on horror.
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5