Review: Ma

by Andrew Parker

Ma, a silly B-movie thriller from prestige picture director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up) and starring Octavia Spencer as a murderous middle aged woman terrorizing a group of hard partying teens, is an oddly entertaining film with enough good ideas and basic storytelling chops to paper over the fact that it’s all a bit flimsy and obvious upon closer scrutiny. It’s the rare sort of low budget chiller that’s interesting enough to keep viewers invested in spite of anyone with half a brain realizing how incrementally ridiculous the whole enterprise grows over time. Whether or not viewers will want to stick around through the unnecessarily slow burning plot of Ma to get to the most entertaining bits of craziness the filmmaker and star have to offer depends on their patience level, but I for one was always willing to see where the film was going next (despite almost always knowing where the film was going next, anyway).

Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) is the new girl at a rural American high school when her mother (Juliette Lewis) moves back to her hometown to become a cocktail waitress at a local casino. There’s not much to do in town, so she falls in with a crew of hard drinking burnouts who spend most of their weekend nights hanging around outside the liquor store in hopes that someone will take pity on their underaged plight and buy them some booze. They find such an angel in the form of Sue Ann Ellington (Spencer), a seemingly harmless baby boomer and veterinary office secretary, who agrees to score them some hooch if they agree to not drink and drive. After first scoring them liquor, Sue Ann, who says they can call her Ma, keeps turning up unannounced and even invites them to turn the basement of her secluded farmhouse into a party palace for the local teens. It doesn’t take long for Ma and her particular brand of smothering hospitality to start crossing boundaries into creepy territory, raising the suspicion of Maggie and her band of friends’ de facto leader, Haley (McKaley Miller). Sue Ann has been keeping a few dark secrets from her new, young besties, and her altruism is in service of a violent endgame.

Ma finds Taylor – working from a script by prolific comedy writer Scotty Landes – establishing a more assured sense of slow burning atmosphere than he did on his last foray into genre filmmaking with the dire and deathly boring bestseller adaptation The Girl on the Train, which is baffling since that was story that could use healthy shots of style and dark humour into its stiffened, ungainly upper arm. Taylor isn’t really employing any revolutionary stylistic techniques to turn Ma into something more than it already is; favouring tried and true deep focus shots, mirror reflections, and extreme close-ups to express paranoia and unease. Taylor keeps the pace moving along briskly, but without too much of a hurry, before snapping the film to life as it barrels into its brazenly unhinged final act.

Ma isn’t a story that holds many surprises despite its constant hinting to the contrary. The reasons for Sue Ann’s detachment from reality isn’t hard to piece together, even before Taylor and Landes start employing flashbacks to the character’s troubled childhood to spell everything out in detail. It doesn’t particularly have much to say about generational divides, and its messages about bullying and inclusivity are half-assed at the best of times and downright stupid at worst. But that’s all secondary to the overall tone and execution. Taylor wants Ma to be as creepy as it possibly can be, while making viewers earn the right to see Spencer’s villainous title character chew the scenery and go apeshit on a bunch of self-righteous teens and adults. Ma never takes itself seriously outside of making sure that it holds together as a piece of entertainment. The plot has more holes than cheesecloth, but as a spooky slasher flick, Ma delivers the goods with a sense of humour.

Outside of Taylor’s handle on the material, Ma benefits best from a cast that knows and understands exactly the type of film they’ve been hired for, whether the actors are seasoned professionals with a bunch of credits or newcomers. Spencer is an absolute delight as the villain, and she’s even able to make the viewer feel pity for Sue Ann in the face of her vile, but somewhat justified actions. It’s the kind of performance an actor turns in when they realize they might never have another chance to play a specific sort of role again, so they give everything they have to make sure it leaves a memorable impression. Silvers and Miller have a great rapport with their co-stars, both teenage and adult, and make great foils for Spencer’s particular brand of loopiness. Lewis is able to steal a few scenes as Maggie’s concerned mother, Allison Janney has a welcome cameo as Sue Ann’s perpetually angry and impatient boss, and Luke Evans pops up in a key supporting role as the obviously shady parent of the primary protagonist’s sweet natured boyfriend, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). Everyone in Ma balances their character work and the film’s slowly complicating plot mechanics with tongues firmly in cheek. No one in Ma seems deluded into thinking they’re in anything more than a B-movie.

That might be what’s most refreshing about Tate’s latest. There’s nary a drop of pretension to be found here. Ma wants to give the viewer some chills, a handful of nervous laughs, and hopefully pull the wool over their eyes with a couple of twists. I can’t say Ma had me tricked with its overall reveal, but it did catch me with one of the more minor ones that happens just past the midway point (even if it does require some degree of explanation that’s seemingly being held onto in case there’s a sequel). I wasn’t scared, but I enjoyed the novelty of the attempts made to spook the audience. I did laugh quite a bit, but Ma is made with those gags built into its fabric, so it certainly wasn’t unintentional. Most importantly, I was sufficiently entertained; maybe not enough to get excited about future installments, but enough to go home satisfied.

Ma opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, May 31, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Ma:

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