Ma is a movie scientifically designed to make you want to hate teenagers. That’s, of course, if you didn’t already. Teenagers are the disease and Octavia Spencer’s Ma is the cure!
Spencer stars in Ma as Sue Ann, a mentally-unstable woman who forms a friendship with a group of obnoxious, rude, borderline-sociopathic teenagers and asks them to start calling her Ma. After agreeing on the appropriate nicknames, the two parties spend the next hour trying to kill each other. Classic Ma.
Director Tate Taylor may not seem like the obvious choice of a horror director. The filmmaker has previously been responsible for prestige book-club-approved adaptations such as The Help and The Girl on the Train. That said, the only thing Taylor likes more than making movies guaranteed to play for eternity on basic cable is working with his friends. When pal Octavia Spencer came a-calling, wanting to make a horror movie, Taylor was only too keen to jump onboard and helm the project. The result is a movie that manages to bring a fun and fresh perspective to the horror genre, delivering something of a mix between a trashy Lifetime Channel original movie and a Universal Monsters classic.
As the titular Ma, Ocativa Spencer is a sympathetic monster. Bullied by her boss, mocked by the very teenagers she’s trying to help by buying booze for and harboring some deeply unresolved issues from her youth, Sue Ann is one bad day away from snapping at any given moment.
The film’s youthful ensemble, led by Diana Silvers as Maggie, are The Worst. Don’t get me wrong - the actors are perfectly serviceable in their roles as hormone-crazed, alcoholic loafers but Ma was clearly written by somebody who hates teenagers. Hates them. They are constantly biting the hand that feeds them, mocking Sue Ann to her face even after she has helped them buy liquor and opened her basement to them as a place to drink and dancing like a-holes to ‘70s funk. The teenagers are bad people through-and-through and the audience will begin to anticipate their demise at the hand of Ma.
One problem, though - the teenagers are supposed to be the protagonist and Ma is supposed to be the monster. In an effort to balance out the audiences’ hatred for the teenagers, the filmmakers (including writer Scotty Landes) double down on making Ma a monster by adding a third-act twist that cements her evil and strips away audiences’ sympathy. Unfortunately, this twist is unearned and underexplored, giving the film a rocky ending that tarnishes what was otherwise a fun and trashy pic. If Ma had left Spencer’s Sue Ann as a morally grey angel of death to the jerk teenagers of the world, the film could have been something to cheer for. By siding with the teenagers, though, the film strips the movie of anybody worth caring about.
Ma is a movie stuck between gears. It comes close to being an outsider, exploitation film - with an unorthodox movie monster that is equal parts charming and creep-inducing. Unfortunately, just before the film can really lean into the potentially-problematic but sure-to-be highly enjoyable shlock that a movie like Ma was born to be, it pulls back and settles into the same middle-of-the-road, country-fried territory that director Taylor has worked in for most of his career.
Ma is a movie that screams to be confrontational, ugly and unpleasant. It’s a movie about a middle-aged woman bullied into being a child killer, for crying out loud! The movie does an admirable job exploring the psychological effects of bullying and the cast is all doing their best to keep the film moving at a fun clip but I can’t help but wish Ma had been made at the hands of somebody who was willing to push the material just a bit further and just a bit weirder.
All that said, Octavia Spencer is fantastic as Sue Ann and it’s exciting to see her tackle roles like this. If Ma ends up being a hit, I hope there are sequels in store and they are allowed to be a little less mainstream. I want to see a series of films starring Ma as a teenager-killing superbitch, delivering justice to the spoiled-rotten youth of the world.