Review: Ma (2019)

Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers, a young actress I only just encountered in last week’s Booksmart) moves to a new town with her mother and immediately gets invited to hang with the cool kids. While dredging around to get someone to buy them alcohol, she meets Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), an apparently kind older woman who invites them to party in her basement after they’re busted. What no one realizes is that Sue Ann is the one who informed on them, the first of her many manipulations.

Ma is a surprisingly strong concept; there’s so much room here for subtle engineering on the part of Sue Ann, a woman who can piece together the group’s social fears while exploiting the fact they’re unlikely to tell their parents. Such a premise allows for a truly unique horror villain, one who is otherwise an ordinary person. Unfortunately, such a concept would require a certain subtlety to the actions of the antogonist – Ma seems to skip a necessary middle step in getting from light paranoia to full-on insanity.

The problems here largely fall back on the writing (as it does with many films that sell themselves purely off concept). The dialogue is supremely shallow; we spend so much of this movie operating as a teen drama, but these teenagers don’t seem to have real character beyond their narrative function. Story progression is similarly lacking.

Several scenes feel unnecessary. When the group first invites Maggie to join in, she tells them her mother is taking her to a music festival. The very next scene finds her mother saying she has to cover someone’s shift that night, therefore freeing Maggie up. Why present the music festival as an obstacle and then immediately negate it? Moments like these add little more than a minute to the movie’s length.

When we finally get to Sue Ann as a central focus, we start getting short flashbacks to her own time in high school, implying something must have happened to cause her current actions. These moments really don’t work for me – they feel like a cheap tactic to garner sympathy, but I think it would have been more effective as mere implication. The movie makes it very clear she’s targeting the children of her childhood tormentors; why not let us fill in the blanks? Knowing exactly what happens really adds nothing and might even detract; it carries some unfortunate implications about how the writers view trauma.

All of this adds up to a film that seems unsure of its own purpose; it devotes so much time to characters it isn’t really establishing and seems to undermine the presentation of its villain. The average horror film doesn’t necessarily need the most well-defined characters; the problem here is that the concept is based around social connections and communication failures. Even the final horrors seem directly tied into how the characters present themselves, but their lack of definition means it really doesn’t earn those moments.

The big highlight here is, naturally, watching Octavia Spencer play so hard against type. She completely hams it up; if Ma is an unsuccessful film, it has just enough camp to potentially linger as a minor cult hit.

Another nice detail here is that this is a rare horror film that largely lets the protagonists guide the narrative. Maggie and her friends are choosing to be present, even as the stakes keep rising. Unfortunately, this also highlights what’s lacking, since this would be so much more engaging if they were better defined.

In the end, I had fun with Ma, but it’s a film that could have been so much more in either direction. It’s not quite absurd enough to be a truly joyous midnight movie while too poorly structured to be a legitimate horror. It’s shapelessly mundane.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

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