2019 has certainly been a year for unhinged sociopaths. No, I’m not talking about your Twitter feed, although that is an issue, but Hollywood and it’s penchant to make wide-release films for premises often seen on the Lifetime channel. From The Intruder to Greta, Hollywood loves to depict crazy onscreen. However, these films demand execution that will inspire fear in audiences or take them on a fun ride (or both). Neither of the previously mentioned films did that, but Ma is here to correct those wrongs and give you the ludicrous, gloriously entertaining B movie you deserve.
Diana Silvers plays Maggie, an awkward and introverted high schooler who eventually builds up the guts to accept the invitation of some new friends who want to hang out with her. This includes the snide and derisive Haley (Mckaley Miller) and Maggie’s crush Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). Through a chance encounter while attempting to find an adult who will buy them booze, the group meets Sue (Octavia Spencer). Sue is at first standoffish, but surprisingly accepts their request to buy liquor. But its apparent early on that something is not quite right. Sue secretly displays a strange attachment to the group, including one teen in particular. After the teens have a run in with the police, Sue offers her basement to them as a safe place to party.
It’s here where Sue starts to display more strange idiosyncrasies that at first glance alarm the group, but they eventually shrug it off as the sullen divorcee wanting to let loose and have some fun. Sue is authoritative when needed to be, but mostly tries to act like the very high schoolers she harbors. It’s not clear right away whether or not Sue is suffering some arrested development or trying to redeem events from her past, but the clues will likely lead you to guess where everything is going. However, the journey to get there is so much fun. Director Tate Taylor doesn’t waste much time with frivolous fluff. Ma takes full advantage of it’s characters and settings, slowly executing the world building of this small town while revealing everyone’s past and motivations.
As the events escalate, Sue gets increasingly attached to the group, and Spencer’s performance gets appropriately more bizarre to match the increasing tension. And the film itself gets more bizarre with it, as the script is clearly not taking itself too seriously. This is a film where one character just randomly, unironically, states “Let’s go get egg rolls! I’m gonna put ketchup on them!” and it’s not even in the top 5 for most absurd lines in the film.
Spencer, usually seen in prestige films such as The Help and Hidden Figures, is having so much fun playing a role completely against type. While the cast is solid, she anchors and elevates the entire production. Her performance switches from warm and loving to stern and bratty, to pissed off and psychotic with relative ease and genuine believability. There’s not a second of film where she isn’t 100% committed, showing the value of character actors to the quality of B movie schlock.
The rest of the cast isn’t as impressive, but they’re fun for the archetypes they’re directed to play. Juliette Lewis is perhaps the best of the rest as Maggie’s no BS mom Erica. While none of the support are particularly memorable, they all play off Spencer well and overall that is the end goal of their performances. And it’s that chemistry combined with Spencer’s scene-chewing perhaps that makes Ma a fun thriller.
However, it never quite ascends to genuine terror. Even in the 3rd act, as the stakes rise, the characters are in deep danger, but Taylor never takes the time to draw us into suspense. Instead, the film settles for a finale that is simply violent rather than scary, but perhaps that was the goal. I can’t imagine this will end up on anyone’s year-end lists, but for cheap movie on a random Saturday afternoon you can do a lot worse than this (looking at you, Brightburn).