Besides a Nefarious Octavia Spencer Performance, Ma Is a Bit of a Mess

The second you give me a horror film starring Octavia Spencer as the villain, I’m there. Ma, a new thriller from the director of The Help and The Girl on a Train, held the promise of that, but aside from a devilishly fun performance from Spencer in the titular role, it doesn’t offer much else. It certainly seems to try, but every element of Ma’s story winds up feeling severely underdeveloped. 

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Maggie (Diana Silvers) is the new girl at school, but she’s able to quickly fall in with a group of friends. It’s a small town, so the teens have little else to do but drive around town getting drunk and trying to have some fun. Along comes Sue Ann (Spencer), a lonely woman who befriends the group by buying them booze and letting them party in her basement. Pretty soon, Sue Ann, now nicknamed Ma by the kids, and her house become the party spot for all the teens in town. But Ma doesn’t ever seem to want to let the party end, and her intentions become more and more unsettling.

The main thing that matters in this movie is Spencer and her performance, and she doesn’t disappoint. She’s never exactly scary; she’s more unpredictable. Sue Ann becomes progressively unhinged as the film progresses, and seeing her slowly slip deeper into madness is much more interesting than having her just be nuts from the start. It’s one smart decision the movie makes – Sue Ann doesn’t seem to start off with ill will, but the events of the film lead to her eventual lunacy. Spencer is having way too much fun in the role, she’s sufficiently creepy and unsettling, sickeningly sweet, downright hilarious when she needs to be, but always with a layer of genuine intelligence and emotion beneath. She seems to really understand the character of Sue Ann, even if the script often doesn’t. 

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Ma keeps adding more and more to itself, and while most of the elements tossed into it could be interesting, none of them are ever explored or developed enough. We just keep getting new plot points without ever having enough times with the ones already established. Sue Ann was a social pariah and the victim of a humiliating prank while she was in high school, so her wanting to party with the current cool kids and in turn, be popular among them, feels like her trying to gain back the school experience she was robbed off. But it also turns into revenge against her former classmates, who all just so happen to be the parents of the kids partying in Sue Ann’s basement. 

This backstory and reveal is presented in chunks through the film rather than all at once, and if this was all there is and the film chose to streamline that, I think it would all work a lot better. Instead, it tosses in a lot of screen time for Maggie falling for a boy in her friend group, a romantic subplot that goes nowhere by the end, as well as a side plot that involves Maggie’s mother, a former resident of the town (and classmate of Sue Ann), who’s moved back home after her marriage fell apart. This too, ends up feeling pointless, despite the few scenes given to it, and her relationship with Sue Ann is suddenly thrust front and center at the film’s climax,  but it’s unearned and unsatisfying.

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There’s even more things that the story crams in that I haven’t mentioned – things that seem like fascinating twists on paper but end up not going in any sort of real direction. Ma boasts some exceptional performances in it and functions pretty decently as a character study, but it’s story lacks focus and has too many parts that are never given enough time to mean anything. There’s still some entertainment to be found at Ma’s house, but not enough. 

2.5 / 5 Stars

Ma is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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