Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 26, 2019)
In a horror environment where supernatural matter dominates, 2019’s Ma presents a more reality-based thriller. When Erica Thompson’s (Juliette Lewis) husband leaves her, she moves back to her Ohio hometown with her teen daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers).
Though she initially struggles to fit in at her new high school, Maggie soon finds herself invited to party with popular Haley (McKaley Miller) and her friends. Though she initially declines, Maggie rethinks her decision and chooses to hang out with her fellow teens.
One complication: the kids want to get drunk but they lack access to booze. To alter this, they go to a local liquor store and ask strangers to buy alcohol for them.
These efforts fail until Maggie meets Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer). Sue Ann says no at first, but she changes her mind and purchases the booze for the kids.
This comes with unexpected repercussions, as Sue Ann – who soon gains the nickname “Ma” – attaches herself to the kids. Initially, this seems like a good thing, as Ma allows them to use her basement as Party Central whenever they want.
However, the teens quickly discover the strings attached to this, as Ma seems determined to use them as an attempt to recapture her own lost youth. Her obsession with the kids grows and turns into a threat.
If nothing else, Ma earns credibility due to the presence of Spencer. Movies like this don’t usually sport Oscar-winning talent, so she adds depth to the project, as do Lewis and a few other recognizable faces I’ll not mention to leave them as surprises.
I suspect Spencer ended up here because director Tate Taylor helmed 2011’s The Help, the film that brought her fame and that aforementioned Oscar. Whether or not Spencer agreed to appear in Ma for her own reasons or as a favor to Tate remains up for debate.
Given that Spencer usually plays supporting roles, I suspect it’s a mix. While I’m sure she’s happy to get a lead, I doubt she felt all that impressed with the mediocre material at hand.
Not that Ma becomes a total dud, as it boasts some positives. As I alluded earlier, the film breaks from the usual stale supernatural tale to bring us something much more believable.
Psychological thrillers aren’t unknown these days, but they seem to be an endangered species. Even efforts like 2017’s hit Get Out feature supernatural elements, so I’m glad to find one that goes solely with real-world choices.
I also appreciate the subtlety with which the first parts of Ma progress. Although the story hints at Sue Ann’s issues, it doesn’t telegraph them, so the tale builds in a fairly natural manner.
I admit it’s a relief to find a movie that doesn’t beat us over the head with “thrills” miles in advance. We saw the trailers so we know where this path will lead, but at least Ma takes us there in a reasonably subdued way.
That said, even without the trailers, we can already sense this tale won’t end well. After all, no rational middle-aged woman chooses to hang out with teens unless she suffers from some mental concerns, so the thriller elements follow a pretty inevitable route.
The basic narrative and its fairly relaxed manner keep us with Ma for its first half, but eventually, the filmmakers remember it’s 2019 and subtlety doesn’t sell. This means that the movie’s second half lacks the low-key nature of the initial 50 minutes, and logic flies out the window.
While these machinations could become crazier and more off the rails than they do, they still mean Ma loses its center. We get more into Wacko World and disconnect from the fairly realistic psychological drama of the first half.
Still, even with the movie’s flaws, I appreciate its attempts to separate from the usual 2010s horror pack. Ma loses steam as it goes, but at least it brings something different from its peers.