Life teaches us many lessons. One that universally carries on from childhood through adolescence and well into adulthood is that kids can be some of the cruelest monsters in existence. As the traumatic consequences of bullying is on the rise, parents may be forced to take a closer look at how their children are behaving towards themselves and others. An emotional attack could weigh more on an individual than any bite or stab or flame ever could. The horror genre preys on coming-of-age themes the way the popular hunt the weak, but Tate Taylor’s (The Girl on the Train) Ma takes an oddly fun look at the downtrodden decades after high school has ended and what happens when they take revenge on a new generation of youths.
Blumhouse’s Ma, starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (The Help), Diana Silvers (Booksmart), Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers), Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast), and a brief appearance from Allison Janney (I, Tonya), shakes things up in a small town when a local loner comes across the children of her high school classmates. In an attempt to take revenge on those that tormented her when she was younger, Ma befriends the teens plying them with booze and a safe place to party: her basement. When the kids become suspicious of mom’s deranged and impulsive behavior, her real motives for the hospitality surface. Obsession takes a new form in Ma as she slowly becomes confrontational, erratic, and lethal.
Director Tate Taylor keeps the story simple and thoughtful, relying on crafting characters much like the people we see in our own hometowns. Even though she expertly uses her car as a weapon in one particularly satisfying scene, the actions Ma takes while seeking revenge are a little too careful and, sadly, relatable. Like the forbidden teenage parties hosted in Ma’s basement, this scary story is full of fun and desirable moments, but there is something a little off about it.
Ironically playing a wallflower/ loner/ odd girl out, Spencer completely steals the show. It might be something we can expect, but in an effort to keep herself from being typecast in sweet but tough supporting roles, Spencer succeeds effortlessly. Her role as Ma is an empowering step for herself as a lead and as an outlet for her to stretch her acting range, emotion, and ability. Ma is absolutely bat shit crazy, the exact kind of villain we want to see in a story of revenge and obsession. While at times it’s hard to sympathize with her, Spencer has the charm to pull an ounce of respect from viewers. If she didn’t elicit that kind of response, none of the film’s humor would have drawn out as many laughs from the audience as it did. As Ma, Spencer is delightfully poisonous and empathetically dangerous. She makes this film a real thrill and compensates for the genuine, but liberal application of gratuity.
Going into Ma, I really expected a twist of some sort, a point that would turn the plot into something more than what the previews had shown me, but that is not what happened. I was pleasantly surprised to feel that it didn’t matter to me or skew my viewing in any way. If anything, I was really happy to see that Taylor and debut film screenwriter Scotty Landes kept the story original and simple without too many twists and turns to alter the substance. Spencer, rightfully, retains the focus as well as her road to ultimate revenge. Some dark matters are thrown in as her high school backstory is told in progressive flashbacks and her current living situation and secrets are revealed, but Ma holds onto this fresh sense of self. It knows what it is, a fun, hip flick, and embraces that with open arms. I appreciated being unbothered by the factors I anticipated to break my attention.
I was shocked to learn of Ma’s almost 2-hour runtime as it spills 30 minutes over what qualifies as enough time for a good horror film to stake its claim. It didn’t necessarily feel like a long time as I was watching it, but I do think that certain chunks of time would have been better spent focusing on the horrors of this film over the hokey teen interaction and innocent budding romance between the two main teens. I understand all of these scenes are necessary to develop that coming-of-age feel and establishing the connection between the relationships of the parents, their children, and the friends from the past and present, but so much time is wasted showing the lifestyle of these characters that it seems to be waiting around before Ma can get really crazy. Moments of terror and an actual death scene are ignored in favor of cringe dialogue between the teens. The suspense does grow as I wondered what she would do next, but I wasn’t halfway satisfied until the last 20 minutes of the film. Ma needed to up the ante on the creep factor and lower the countless layers of emotion that padded its two hour constitution.
It was really hard to think of Ma as anything more than a fun, “popcorn” movie, with the stigma of Ma’s trauma portrayed in such a blatantly negative way. I really struggled to laugh along with the audience when it was obvious that what I was watching was wrong, whether it was written as comedy or not. I don’t think it would’ve been funny to see a middle-aged man have a teenage girl strip naked at gunpoint as a gag, so I refuse to think it’s funny when the genders reversed. Ma does humor well for the most part thanks, again, to Spencer, but it does not play on the emotions of its characters or viewers appropriately or consistently. The levels of consequences are there for these parents who horrifically (and sexually) abused Ma as a young girl, but when the end credits roll no one has learned anything or is made to be a better person. None of the character arcs are complete and nobody pays any reparations. I don’t have a problem with that, but I really didn’t have a side to root for when the big showdown finally happened so it fell completely flat.
All in all, Ma has a lot of potential to be scary, to send a message, and to pave a movement of modern horror, but it strictly remains grounded in what it promises viewers: a good time. It’s fun and fresh at a time when everything is trying to achieve art house greatness or perfect the greatest twist ever told. The audience enjoyed their time and responded well to the incredible performance by Spencer. Ma is really everything we expected, but in this case that’s not such a bad thing. An exciting night out has so much more appeal when your passage home is solid and assured. It’s comforting to know that when we’re with Ma, we’re safe.