The psychological horror film Ma examines how past trauma informs adult decisions. An outcast woman struggles to maintain healthy relationships with people her own age, so she befriends high school students instead. Directed by Tate Taylor, Ma is grounded by the main character’s internalized grief and ulterior motives, and provides a subtextual commentary on race, gender, and teen movie tropes.
In Ma, Octavia Spencer portrays Sue Ann Ellington, a veterinary technician living in Ohio. She meets a group of high school students and agrees to buy alcohol for them. The kids nickname Sue Ann “Ma” because she allows them to party in her basement and sets a few basic rules: No swearing, no drunk driving, and no going upstairs. But when Sue Ann becomes overbearing by sending texts and video messages, her young friends reconsider the relationship, only to be lured back by lies and alcohol.
An angry parent confronts Sue Ann about her actions, which kicks off Ma's violent final act. Sue Ann organizes a basement party, drugs the students, and tortures them. She also drugs one of the parents and then kills him in her room. In Ma’s climax, Sue Ann is stabbed and her home is accidentally set on fire. She retreats upstairs to die alongside her former classmate - but why?
Ma Is Getting Revenge On Her Childhood Bullies
Sue Ann pursues a relationship with the students because she identifies them as the children of her childhood bullies. Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) drives a security company vehicle owned by his father, Ben Hawkins (Luke Evans), Sue Ann’s former crush who publicly humiliated her in high school. "Ma" confirms the Hawkins familial connection via Facebook. She also investigates Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers, Booksmart), a girl who she IDs as the daughter of Erica Thompson (Juliette Lewis), a former classmate who failed to prevent Sue Ann’s bullying.
Sue Ann’s basic motivations are established from the start. Her actions aren’t random but rather calculated. For the audience, though, it may be initially unclear why Sue Ann is still angry about the past. As she spends more time with the teenagers, she recognizes personality traits that are connected to her high school bullying. In Andy, Sue Ann sees the archetypal “Cool Guy,” a heartbreaker just like this father. In Maggie, Sue Ann sees a passive and naive young woman - just like her mother, Erica. When Maggie mouths off during a party and calls Sue Ann a “loser,” she’s quickly a taught an important lesson about peer pressure. Maggie takes too many shots and can't remember what happened the following morning. For Sue Ann, Andy and Maggie represent the dream high school couple, and they're symbolic of what evaded her as a teenager. Most importantly, though, they remind Sue Ann of their parents.
In Ma, it’s the side characters who further distress Sue Ann. McKaley Miller portrays a loud-mouth student name Haley, a girl who later sends a derogatory video message about "Ma." In Sue Ann’s mind, Haley reminds her of a former bully named Mercedes (Missi Pyle), who just so happens to be dating Ben. Whereas young Andy and Maggie remind Sue Ann of the romance she never had, Haley and Mercedes remind her of the archetypal mean girls. In addition, a student named Chaz (Gianni Paolo) is symbolic of the high school jock. During the first basement party, he teases Sue Ann about not being "cool." She subsequently pulls out a gun and forces him to strip - but then smiles and keeps the party rolling.
Out of the main group of students, a black teenager named Darrell (Dante Brown) informs the audience about Sue Ann’s self-image as a social outcast. He’s the character that comes up with the nickname “Ma,” and Sue Ann recognizes his willingness to conform with his all-white friends. When Andy has to write a school essay about a slave ship and states that he can’t attend a basement party, Darrell make a racially-themed joked that doesn’t go over well with "Ma." Each character symbolizes a specific high school trope for Sue Ann. As the story progresses, she becomes overwhelmed by these painful reminders and actively decides to pursue a more aggressive form of revenge. History repeats itself, and Sue Ann becomes a source of laughter for a new generation of students. This is significant because "Ma" wasn’t simply teased in high school, she was set up to be publicly humiliated in front of her peers.
Ma Was The Victim Of A Horrible High School Prank
Sue Ann’s line of work is connected to past bullying. As a veterinary technician, she protects dogs and other animals because she was treated like one in high school. Various flashback sequences reveal Sue Ann’s backstory, and explain her lack of empathy.
The first flashback sequence shows a teenage Sue Ann being invited to a party at a local rock pile. Another flashback sequence show her forming a relationship with Ben. Later, Ben requests a romantic meeting in a school closet. The final flashback sequence reveals that Sue Ann gave oral sex to boy she thought was Ben, but turned out to be a different classmate. Sue Ann was set up, and her peers laugh wildly as she exits the closet. On a practical level, this moment explains why Sue Ann immediately decided to investigate Andy Hawkins in Ma's opening sequence. But on a psychological level, it suggests an ulterior motive for actually pursuing a friendship with the teenagers. Sue Ann could be motivated by curiosity or pure revenge - probably a mixture of both. In Ma, Sue Ann is still clearly angry about past bullying, but she also wants to belong. This concept drives the first half of the film.
Sue Ann and Ben are reunited at the veterinarian office. For the story, the location is relevant, as Sue Ann views Ben as a dog (something that's particularly apparent in the way she eventually kills him). At first, Ben plays nice, just like he did in high school. He requests a meeting... just like he did in high school. However, Ben reveals his true nature when he publicly and aggressively confronts Sue Ann about her relationship with his son, Andy. Ben has a tracking device on his security vehicle, and knows that Andy has been to Sue Ann’s home. This particular moment precedes the final flashback sequence. In the present, Ben dates Mercedes, the "Cool Girl" who helped set up Sue Ann in high school. The final act essentially begins with Sue Ann killing Mercedes, as she runs her over with a car.
Ma's Big Twist: Sue Ann Has A Daughter
Ma’s big twist changes the film’s power dynamics. Early on, the teenagers are told not to go upstairs. Later, Maggie and Haley try to find a bathroom, and they’re scolded by Sue Ann. The girls ultimately decide to break into Sue Ann’s house after two important events: Ma” reveals she has pancreatic cancer (a lie), and that’s why she’s been acting strange; and the students notice that “Ma” has clearly been stealing jewelry. So, they break into Sue Ann's home and receive a big surprise. A young girl wearing a mask frightens them. She’s Genie (Tanyell Waivers), Ma’s teenage daughter.
At first, Genie appears to be a threatening character, but she’s revealed to be a soft-spoken girl. Maggie and Haley know Genie as the wheelchair-bound girl from school, so they’re surprised she can walk. Ma has been gaslighting Genie - manipulating her daughter into believing a false reality. This causes Maggie and Haley to become even more skeptical of Sue Ann, as they feel bad for Genie and don't like that she’s being kept at home.
In Ma's final act, Genie returns when Sue Ann organizes another party. First, Ma invites Ben to her home and quickly injects him with diazepam. Sue Ann then kills Ben quite gruesomely: giving him a transfer of canine blood taken from Maggie's dog, and then slitting his wrists and letting him bleed out. In the basement, Sue Ann spikes the drinks, and the teenagers are knocked out. Meanwhile, a grounded Maggie escapes from home and finds her unconscious friends and Ben's body at Ma’s house. She’s also injected and knocked out.
Ma tortures each of the students, and the specifics are associated with past bullying and high school archetypes. The jock, Chaz, is burned with an iron. The loudmouth, Haley, has her lips sewn shut. The conformist black teenager, Dante, receives a splash of white paint across his face, with Sue Ann noting that “there’s only room for one of us” - a meta-joke about teen movies that often feature just one clichéd black character. Ultimately, Genie saves the day by knocking her mother out with a frying pan (which starts the house fire). While Sue Ann is temporarily stopped, the teens regain consciousness and are freed from the house. When Ma wakes up and tries to drag Genie back into the fire with her, Maggie stabs her and states, “I’m not like my mother. I’m not weak.” This climactic moment implies that the film's young teenagers are indeed complex - not just mirror images of their parents.
Ma Dies With Ben - But Why?
Despite Maggie’s best effort to kill Sue Ann, the character doesn’t immediately die. Instead, she grins from a window as the rescued teenagers try to process what just happened. Ma’s final sequence shows Sue Ann walking upstairs and lying next to Ben, bringing the story full circle.
Sue Ann finally gets another private moment with Ben. As a teenager, she wanted romance. As an adult, she wanted respect. In the end, Sue Ann dies next to the man that causes her so much pain. She couldn’t have him, but she could ensure that he wouldn’t hurt her anymore. The fire rages on, serving as a visual metaphor for Sue Ann’s internal angst since childhood, and also connected to her gaslighting of Genie. It's Ma who fueled this fire.
Ma’s ending raises bigger questions about race, gender, and unprocessed grief. In the end, Sue Ann - a black woman - lies next to a white man who showed little remorse about his past actions. Ben previously labeled Sue Ann as a “loser” during their confrontational meeting, suggesting that he didn't respect her as a woman or a human being. As teenagers, Ben clearly didn’t consider Sue Ann’s feelings as a black woman trying to bond with her white peers. She was humiliated, and thus made to feel like she not only wasn't good enough, but that she didn't belong. On a psychological level, this connects to Sue Ann’s befriending of the young teenagers. In a sense, she was trying to re-live her teenage years. But Sue Ann was ultimately reminded of the past, and the wrath of "Ma" was unleashed.
Ma Is About The Dangers Of Revenge & Ills Of The Past
Ma explores the effects of childhood trauma and emotions that haven’t been properly dealt with. In the first half, Sue Ann's actions underline her questionable decision-making, but it’s clear that she’s simply looking for connections. Sue Ann appears to be a loner who needs a few friends.
In reality, however, Sue Ann is a mother, and so the daughter revelation sets up a larger story about accountability. One could argue that Sue Ann doesn’t initially plan to physically hurt anybody. But when she’s disrespected by the children of her high school bullies, an inner fire burns once again, and Ben’s blatant disrespect only makes matters worse. Sue Ann’s villainous turn aligns with the realization that she’s being forced to conform with judgmental white people once again.
In that sense, Ma is a cautionary tale about ills of the past, and how some people, not all, are pushed to the edge when they feel helpless, betrayed, and misunderstood. If only someone had defended Ma during her lowest moment as a teenager, perhaps the downward spiral into violence would never have begun.