As if high school wasn’t scary enough, Ma is a new horror thriller from Blumhouse and Universal attempting to inject new terrors into the coming-of-age experience, this time by front-lining Octavia Spencer (an Academy Award-winning actress) at her wackiest octave, a sublime blend of unhinged, unbent, and thoroughly broken.
In case you missed Greta from earlier this year, Ma takes on a similar “this lady crazy” digression into the insanity of being a lonely adult with an unhealthy fixation on Millennials by way of GenZ. Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer) is first introduced to us as a put-upon veterinarian with a humiliating past in a town too small to forget, which edges its way into an increasingly frightening obsession with the next generation of young adults.
These kids are calm, cool, and led in spirit by Diana Silvers as Maggie, who recently moved to town with her mother, a former townie with a vague connection to the rest of the parents in what might be mistaken as a suburb of Riverdale. Over the course of Ma, we see the distinct difference between Sue Ann’s high school experience and the modern, mostly effusive students just looking to have a good time. As an adult, Sue Ann is more than willing to oblige their thirst to party by opening up her basement as a local hotspot for mischievous teens, but right off the bat, “Ma’s” intentions appear far darker than her hip, young friends may want to realize.
For the majority of the runtime, Ma only dabbles with deeper themes of bullying and racial divides. In fact, you can breeze through the film without ever realizing these people live in rural Ohio, a questionable slight against any sense of location director Tate Taylor might have wanted to bring to the forefront. The town in question is somewhat reminiscent of a midwestern suburb with not much going on inside it except for kids trying to be kids and adults successfully ignoring them while they’re off at work.
The racial ideas in Ma are so surface level, the handful of moments they even get brought up feel like they were reshot for an entirely different movie. They raise good questions about exclusion in a community warped by indifference, but answering these questions with nothing but pale violence and a sporadic character arc Spencer can’t seem to coalesce through sheer performative will alone.
Because Taylor, the screenwriter Scotty Landes, producer Jason Blum, and most of the rest of the creative force behind Ma are white men, it’s easy to see why the film ultimately dodges these issues, rather than embrace them with confidence and relevance. Ma reeks of a film trying so hard to avoid being problematic even for the right reasons, it steps right into problematic pitfalls for the wrong ones, namely when it comes to fleshing out who Sue Ann is as a black woman on the margins. There was a genius opportunity here to twist the cliche of black women in subservient roles, and to some extent, Ma at least captures a morsel of that potential thanks to an acting performance that is far more layered than the script (with ample credit also going to Kyanna Simone Simpson, who plays a younger version of the lead).
But Sue Ann is relegated to monster movie status by the narratively rushed third act, without any proper revelations or coherent progression to support the film’s dive into the obscene. Any questions surrounding what Sue Ann really wants and whether or not she deserves a better life gets tossed for a simplistic revenge story dripping off the porch. It’s actually disappointing to contrast this against how patient, methodic, and nuanced some of the earlier scenes are in portraying a mystery that is truly begging to be rewritten into something more surprising, or at least substantial.
Instead, Ma gets drunk on its own supply, which doesn’t mean it’s boring to watch. Spencer rules the screen as a pure force of unpredictable terror…until she doesn’t. And for high school kids, you can find far worse representatives when it comes to this age range, specifically with Haley (McKaley Miller), the blonde best friend who subverts the common horror tropes such a quick description tends to imply. Haley is brave, self-aware, and supportive; containing flaws, but also the strengths to balance them out.
The rest of the friends range from forgettable to token, including the responsible love interest Maggie finds adorable despite his blank wall of attributes beyond liking a girl his age. Sure, a personality this bland is believable enough for 17-year-olds in a schlocky horror movie, no question, but it stands out in a film where Luke Evans gets exactly two chances to prove he has speaking lines (whether or not he makes them count is a separate question). The less we dwell on how poorly utilized Allison Janney and Missi Pyle are, the better, to the point where the film seems to suggest that the casting in Ma is an elaborate prank on these wonderful actors.
Ma is not a film devoid of pleasures, because it’s not a film devoid of Octavia Spencer. It might even be a laugh riot if accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol and friends who are also of age. In other words, it’s a summer horror movie with a weird, but welcome hook that will freak you out for a few hours before slipping out of your sun-soaked mind come August.