Unlike so many recent horror-thrillers, Ma isn’t necessarily driven by gimmicks (despite what its trailers promise), but one relying more on its characters. Here’s a film that plays with the usual tropes of what’s good and what’s evil, vacillating between who the real protagonists and antagonists are. While some will be disappointed it’s chosen a less clear-cut route to its chills and thrills, it’s precisely this lack of gimmick that also allows Ma to feel familiar and intimate. We don’t consciously think of a specific movie it reminds us of. Instead, we’re left wondering how it’s possible for us not to have seen this premise before.
Octavia Spencer plays Sue Ann, a woman in a small town who has some pent-up anger towards a group of cool kids she used to go to high school with for a truly egregious thing they did to her 30 years ago. Back then, Sue Ann was nerdy and anti-social, but wanted to fit in with her classmates so desperately it was easy for them to take advantage of her.
Now an adult living a private and quiet life, she’s surprised when a group of cool kids ask her to buy them liquor. She abides, and soon realizes this group of teens are the children of her former tormentors. Only this time around she’s the cool one, and even offers her basement as a safe haven for them to drink and party. They affectionately dub her “Ma”, and she quickly becomes just another part of the group. She loves this new sense of belonging and acceptance, though a deeper, darker part of her can’t escape what her former classmates put her through. She wants revenge on their children.
The kids may accept Ma, but they’re not angels. Most of the group are bratty and entitled. They recruit new girl Maggie (Diana Silvers) into their crew, who quickly becomes the de facto protagonist of the movie as we see more of her backstory than anyone else’s. Despite coming from a broken family, Maggie remains decently well-balanced, though her close relationship with her mother (Juliette Lewis) is put on the rocks when Sue Ann enters the picture.
Sue Ann’s dark secret allows her emotions to get the best of her at times, giving off subtle warning signs to her new underaged friends. Calling and texting them dozens of times per day, not knowing her limits. She loves feeling cool, but her increasingly sketchy behavior makes her new “friends” grow wary, which further reminds her of her own youth. Most of them ignore these red flags and allow this middle aged woman to continue hanging around, though Maggie isn’t convinced everything is on the level. She tries to stop her group from going to this lady’s house, but Sue Ann may be too involved in their lives.
While the extremes the story is taken to are disturbing and absurd, Spencer gives such a convincing and entertaining performance that nothing she does seems out of reach for her character. Few actresses could bring such a manic energy to such a disturbed character, but half the fun is watching Spencer do her thing as only she can. Silvers (Booksmart) is also a new force to be reckoned with. Her portrayal of Maggie may be too real for a mainstream film, almost too real for a film like this. Her brooding angst is sensed through the way she delivers every line and subtle facial expression, despite her character’s lack of depth.
Director Tate Taylor (Get On Up, The Girl on the Train) knows how to gradually up the intensity so that when we’re allowed to look back on everything that’s transpired, we’re not quite sure how we ended up in such a scenario…but still know the transition was seamless. Co-written by Taylor with Scotty Landes, the script becomes dangerously close to suffocatingly at times, skimming over important details and only hinting at what’s bubbling beneath the surface, often abandoning the depth of its young leads for that of its villain.
Granted, Sue Ann is the more interesting character, but we’re never given enough to make us root for Maggie and her friends. Perhaps these omissions were intentional, though it’s never that clear whether the filmmakers want us to know much at all. We’re teased with obligatory glimpses hinting at a larger world outside of what we’re seeing when we would’ve been just fine if they had just chosen not to tell us anything altogether. At least then we wouldn’t be wondering about it.
Despite its marketing campaign promising psychopathic thrills, Ma is really more of a character study by omission, balancing Spencer’s nuanced performance against a sense of vagueness in plot and motivations. A tight script offers as clean narrative with just the right amount of mystery to keep things interesting, leaving us to fill in the blanks as best we can. As the centerpiece, Sue Ann’s rationalizations and actions give Ma a unique quality reserved for more impactful movies like this, making it best enjoyed when we stop asking questions and willingly go along for the ride. We probably don’t want to know the answers anyway.