Give director Tate Taylor credit—he doesn’t like pigeonholing himself into a single genre or style, and is brave enough to dive into new and exciting artistic territories with a genuine can-do attitude. He could have pulled a Lasse Hallstrom and followed up his smash hit The Help with a series of similar Oscar-bait fare and enjoyed a one-note but at least consistent and safe career. Instead, he decided to follow that up with the deliciously unconventional music biopic Get On Up (a box-office failure) and then the prestige-laced bus stop paperback thriller The Girl on the Train, an occasionally pulpy but ultimately deflated and dull affair.
Now comes Ma, one of those meagerly budgeted Blumhouse horrors. It begins as a clingy-new-BFF-turns-psycho thriller à la Single White Female, spins itself into a paranoia-dipped after school special about the long-term damages of high school bullying, and sort of sticks the landing with an appropriately grotesque and gory climax that drives straight into ’70s Wes Craven exploitation town. The resulting product is a bit of an uneven mess for a considerable chunk of the runtime. Yet Taylor’s willingness to at least have some fun with such a genre mishmash, and star Octavia Spencer’s chilling turn as an unconventional and layered villain—worth the price of admission for some—turns Ma into serviceable mid-tier Blumhouse fare. The film may come nowhere near the heights of Get Out, but it’s infinitely better than Truth or Dare.
Maggie (Diana Silvers) is a low-key teenager who moves back into her go-nowhere Mississippi town after her mother (Juliette Lewis) gets a divorce. She quickly makes friends with her high school classmates and goes out with them to do typical teenager stuff: Get your hands on some booze, find a secluded spot to get wasted, end of list. What’s refreshing about Scotty Landes’ script is that these are portrayed as regular dumb high school kids. They’re not hip or cool, with a distinct quirk applied to each. They don’t spew off random pop culture trivia like mouthpieces of a screenwriter in their mid-30s. Their dialogue and behavior are as plain and predictable as it gets, and that’s what makes them relatable.
Like most teenagers, Maggie and her friends have trouble with the first step of their plan, securing alcohol. In comes veterinary assistant Sue Ann (Spencer), a chipper cool auntie-type who buys the kids booze seemingly out of the goodness of her heart. After their regular hangout is busted, the gang begins to party at Sue Ann’s basement, gradually bringing half the school with them. Sue Ann becomes the town’s teenagers’ favorite middle-aged person, earning the nickname “Ma.” Yet Ma’s eerie personality traits begin to bubble up to the surface. Is she a tragic figure underneath the happy-go-lucky façade? What happened to her in high school, as the occasional flashbacks progressively reveal? Why is she so needy? Why doesn’t she want the kids to leave the basement to see the rest of the house? What are the bizarre noises coming from upstairs? Anyone who’s seen even one of these types of thrillers knows it’s not a rogue Roomba.
We haven’t seen her in such a sinister role before, but Spencer has always hinted at a darker side even in her most wholesome characters. Even during scenes where Ma puts on her friendly neighbor mask, her slightest mannerisms deliver a peculiar unease. As the story develops and the script’s camp-adjacent machinations become more apparent, Spencer really begins to let loose.
With this sub-genre, the audience always awaits “the turn,” the moment where the psychosis of the previously normal-seeming antagonist is revealed. Ma’s structural problem is that it takes too long to get to the turn, and you can’t feed the audience with a lagging second act full of yet another series of creepy looks and innuendos. And when the turn finally comes, it’s too sudden and underdeveloped. Don’t Breathe, another thriller that switches to sleazy exploitation territory, had a nice half-and-half approach. Ma treats its try-not-to-throw-up third act as a welcome chaser, instead of a full second course.
Taylor and Landes might have been aware of their film’s lagging second act, so they pump a bunch of cheap jump scares and decisions by Ma that go directly against her back-story and motivation. (Her decision to kill a particular character is especially baffling.) With a formidable and unorthodox horror villain in its center, supported by a succulent performance by Spencer, Ma could have been a new pulp classic. But it’s too languid and lifeless at times to truly stick the landing.
Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Scotty Landes
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diane Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney
Release Date: May 31, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.