Ma is elevated by Octavia Spencer's terrifically creepy performance, even as it struggles to realize the full potential of its horror movie premise.
Part of Blumhouse's recent success can be attributed to their willingness to produce horror flicks that are not only original, but also very different in terms of style and subject matter. Their hits likes Split, Get Out, and Happy Death Day are a far cry from one another, as are their older franchises like Insidious and The Purge. The company's latest offering, Ma, continues that tradition by taking on the form of a psychological horror film that has more in common with Misery and Neil Jordan's recent thriller Greta than anything else they've made. Ma is elevated by Octavia Spencer's terrifically creepy performance, even as it struggles to realize the full potential of its horror movie premise.
Ma follows teenager Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) as she and her single mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) move back to Erica's small hometown in rural Ohio. It doesn't even feel like a horror film in the beginning, with the focus being on Maggie as she (awkwardly) attempts to fit in at her new high school, and ends up joining a clique that like to spend their free time goofing off and convincing adults to buy alcohol for them. Of course, that changes when the group meets Sue Ann (Spencer), a middle-aged veterinarian's assistant who brushes them off at first, before coming around and even inviting them to hang out and drink safely in her home's basement. Over time, however, Maggie comes to realize their host (or, as they call her, "Ma") is anything but a well-adjusted and stable person.
While Ma reunites Spencer with her longtime friend and The Help and Get on Up director, Tate Taylor, it originated with a screenplay written by Scotty Landes (Workaholics, Who is America?). As hinted by its title, the film aims to critique the archetype of the sassy, but submissive and nurturing black woman - and, by extension, the mammie caricature - that's been depicted onscreen since the early days of Hollywood. It's partly successful in this regard, too, as it gradually reveals the damage that Sue Ann hides behind her harmless facade, as well as the truth about her traumatic past. Problem is, these elements feel like they were added to the movie's story later in development and weren't part of its core from the start. In fact, that's exactly what happened; the initial script draft was written for a white woman and didn't explore Sue Ann's backstory. As a result, Ma's racism horror metaphor feels incomplete in a way that (to cite an obvious example) Get Out's did not.
Nevertheless, the film makes for a muddled, yet respectable piece of horror storytelling thanks to Spencer. Sue Ann feels like a real person in the Oscar-winner's hands, and is sympathetic in ways that she wouldn't have been, had someone of lesser talent played the role. Ma's increasingly familiar plot twists and turns largely work because of Spencer's performance, and she seems to be having a gas portraying someone who can switch from one emotional state to a wildly different one in the blink of an eye. The film's younger actors (led by Silvers, who's fresh off her noteworthy turn in Booksmart) are stuck playing far more two-dimensional characters here, but are sturdy in their respective roles and avoid stealing any of the spotlight from Spencer. That goes double for the adult supporting cast, which further includes Missi Pyle and Taylor's Girl on the Train actors, Luke Evans and Allison Janney.
Behind the camera, Taylor does an adequate, if somewhat underwhelming job as director. The filmmaker makes some interesting creative choices here (in particular, his and DP Christina Voros' subversive use of male nudity), but falls short when it comes to creating suspense or dread through his use of camera angles and sequencing. Ma isn't all that visually engaging either, especially in comparison to Blumhouse's other, equally low-budget horror releases from the past few years. If it weren't for Spencer's acting and Gregory Tripi's generally unsettling score, the film might've even been a bit dull overall. Fortunately, with them onboard, it makes for a typically serviceable slow-burn thrill ride... if also one that had the capacity to be far scarier and more intense.
At the end of the day, Ma is a horror film that definitely has something on its mind; sorry to say, though, its execution is just too generic to do justice by its ideas and themes. Spencer makes it an enjoyable viewing experience all the same, and those in the mood for some freaky entertainment would do well to check it out at some point (if not necessarily in a theater, since it doesn't really benefit from being viewed on the big screen). Ma might not be another home-run for Blumhouse, but it's refreshing to see the company continuing to change things up and taking chances on a wide variety of original projects.
Ma is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 99 minutes long and is rated R for violent/disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use.
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- Ma (2019) release date: May 31, 2019