The thing I want most out of a movie is to be surprised, and while I thought I had Tate Taylor’s Ma pegged after everything that had been revealed in all the different ads, screenwriter Scotty Landes and the director still had a few cards up their proverbial sleeves that managed to keep me on my toes throughout their darkly comedic excursion into the realm of psychological horror. Without a doubt, Ma’s biggest asset is the unpredictable performance from Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, but the film also features some great acting work from the rest of its ensemble, and also manages to find some new ways to mine familiar genre tropes, making Ma one wild and wickedly fun thrill ride.
The setup of Ma is pretty standard, where we follow single mom Erica (Juliette Lewis), who is moving back to her hometown with her teenage daughter, Maggie (Diana Silvers), in tow, as Erica’s looking to restart her life in a familiar place. Maggie has very little trouble fitting in at school, as she’s quickly befriended by the boisterous Haley (McKaley Miller) and her group of pals, including resident good guy Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). One day, Maggie and her new amigos decide they want to party down, and set out to find an adult to buy them booze, with the seemingly helpful Sue Ann (Spencer) taking pity on the teens and agreeing to hook them up.
In an even more magnanimous gesture, Sue Ann (who insists that the kids should all call her “Ma”) tells them that she’s happy to continue getting them booze and let them all have their fun, but only if they decide to use her basement as their proverbial party pad as a means of keeping them “safe.” But as it turns out, “Ma” doesn’t really have the teens’ best interests in mind, and they begin to realize that there’s something very off about their new, older party buddy who is harboring some monumental secrets that could put them in jeopardy if they’re not too careful.
Much like last month’s The Intruder, or even Neil Jordan’s Greta from a few months prior, there are some seriously off-kilter and psycho-kitschy vibes at work in Ma, making this latest project from Taylor completely unsettling at times, but a wholly entertaining experience all the same, and it might be one of my favorite films to come out of Blumhouse’s production house in quite some time. Of course, a big part of this comes from Spencer’s performance in Ma, which is equal parts kooky and heartbreaking, where half the time you just get a sense that there’s something wrong with her, but in the same token, you still can’t help but want to hang out with her despite all the red flags.
And even though Spencer is certainly the main highlight in Ma, the film also benefits from strong performances from the entire cast across the board, with newcomer Diana Silver truly shining in her role here. Lewis is equally great, too (as usual), and even both Luke Evans and Missi Pyle make the most of their limited screen time in Ma as well.
But speaking of “Ma’s” red flags—there are two moments in the story where I almost checked out admittedly, because they didn’t seem to gel with the rest of the film’s narrative whatsoever (one involving a video circulating warning students about Sue Ann, and then without hardly a beat, everyone’s back in her basement throwing down like nothing ever happened, and the other is far more spoilery than that). I totally get that movies like these succeed when characters make bad decisions (believe me, I’m all about it), but when two characters have a deep heart-to-heart about avoiding “Ma,” and then that gets chucked right out the window within just a few moments, I can’t help but be a little disappointed by that decision from a storytelling standpoint.
That being said, it wasn’t enough to derail my enjoyment of Ma, but I do wish that perhaps some of those moments had ended up mattering a little bit more in the long run.
I know cinematic tastes are very subjective, so I’m not sure how many horror fans are going to enjoy Ma as much as I did, but I must admit that Taylor and Spencer both just totally go all in here, and I can’t help but appreciate how hard they swing for the fences with Ma, even if the film does have a few rough spots. Over the last few years, Spencer has become one of my favorite actresses, and you can just tell from her performance in Ma that she’s having a helluva time playing Sue Ann, and her enthusiasm is truly infectious and an absolute blast to behold.
Movie Score: 3.5/5