Octavia Spencer playing a disgruntled woman that befriends a group of kids in some sort of twisted revenge horror movie? That has to be great, right? Well, you can already see the score above so I am sure you can tell where this is going. Let’s take a look.
I suppose that is the tagline for Tate Taylor’s Ma and it acts as the primary motivating interest of Sue Ann (the wonderful Octavia Spencer). She just doesn’t want to see kids driving around drunk and getting themselves into trouble. Of course that’s not the reality of Ma’s intention or we wouldn’t have a horror movie to talk about. No, Sue Ann has a much more malicious intent behind her actions as we are all about to find out.
So I don’t know how to class Ma. I suppose, at its core, it is a Psychological Horror with the usual Psychological Thriller crossover aspects. Focusing on a primary character with a disturbed state of mind and an altered manner of thinking; Ma attempts to combine some of the quick fix shocks and story progression of a teen horror with the slow build of a suspense thriller. This is all powered along by a sympathetic, almost Annie Wilkes-esque, antagonist in the form of Ma herself. For the most part, Ma falls flat on its face in a confused, protracted mess of poor story telling, terrible scripting, and uninteresting, repetitive, sequences.
Ma kicks off with Erica (Juliette Lewis from National Lampoons Christmas Vacation, Natural Born Killers and loads of other stuff) and her daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers from.. umm.. check IMDB?) moving into a new home. There isn’t a huge amount of exposition here but I think we can infer that Erica grew up in this town and it is something of a homecoming for her. Maggie starts out in a new school and, in what is perhaps the most unlikely thing to happen in this movie, is invited to hang out with the “Cool Kids” on her very first day. Who needs character development, right?
Maggie agrees and the crew pick her up in the Mystery Machine to go hunting for booze. I have to be honest, my enjoyment of the movie was hampered instantly as I was rooting for these guys, and their van, to burst into flames on the way to the corner store but, alas, I was left disappointed. This didn’t set me up well for the next hour and twenty minutes.
Attempting to get people to buy booze for them, Maggie bumps into local vet’s assistant Sue Ann. Apparently concerned that the kids may be driving around drunk, Ma agrees to purchase the booze for them as long as one of them stays sober. It would appear that Sue Ann has an ulterior motive, however, as she notes down the name of the company on the gang’s truck and reports them to the police for underage drinking.
Obviously perturbed that they don’t have anywhere to drink, the group bump into Sue Ann again a few days later. She agrees to, once again, buy them booze on the condition that they come and drink at her place so that she knows that they are safe. This sounds like an amazing deal and they agree. It soon becomes apparent that Ma’s is the place to be and practically the whole school hangs out there. The story doesn’t end here as a bunch of strange things happen at Ma’s that are overlooked so the guys can keep their hook up. After awhile, however, Ma seems just a little too enthusiastic to help these kids out and questions arise as to why.
It is so hard for me to recommend Ma at all but I do feel as though it has a few merits. First off, Octavia Spencer is just sublime. I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed her performance. She was absolutely fantastic and played every element of the Ma character with finesse and brilliance. I would advise people watch this movie just for her performance.
It is rare that I feel so strongly that an actor was so much above the movie itself but this is the case here. Octavia Spencer makes the Ma character both sympathetic and hugely menacing at the same time. Her emotions flick from subtle to intense in the blink of an eye and there were moments where I was genuinely shocked at how quickly her expression shifted. I would absolutely adore a Misery remake with Octavia Spencer in the Annie Wilkes role. I am almost 100% sure she could match, or even outdo, Kathy Bates and that is a bold statement.
Some of the supporting cast was really good. Juliette Lewis doesn’t have a particularly huge role but she was great. She really nailed the subtleties of her character and portrayed a seemingly genuine affection for her onscreen daughter Maggie. She is a very experienced, and talented, actor, though, so that’s no real surprise. Allison Janney (The West Wing) had a disappointingly tiny role as Sue Ann’s boss but she was obviously great when she was on screen. I really would have liked to see more interaction between the two characters.
Aside from a lot of the lesser cast members who were very average indeed, we will get one specific average performance out of the way. Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast) has a pretty prominent role in Ma. I have to be honest, despite stealing the show as Gaston in the live action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (my daughter really wanted to see it and I, shockingly, quite enjoyed it) he really didn’t do much here.
His American accent seemed a bit off and his reaction to something that happened in one scene made me laugh out loud due to how hammy it was. He’s Welsh so I feel like I have to give props to my fellow countryman but his performance just wasn’t that great. He honestly didn’t have much to work with, though. There was one excellent scene with Sue Ann where his character’s motivations became clear all of a sudden; I found this to be really well done and it surprised me. Other than that, he is just pretty average throughout.
Now, onto the really bad. The performances of the majority of the teenagers in Ma were just awful. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t all bad. I thought McKaley Miller (Scream Queens) was excellent as Haley. I am sure we aren’t supposed to like her character a great deal but she does a great job with what she is given and brings a lot of energy. I really like her slightly gruff voice, as well, and think she would be great for voice over work.
Diana Silvers, as Maggie, is where things start to go down hill. She was passable I guess. I think she needs a lot more experience. Some of her reactions were not only unnatural but genuinely awkward.
I am attempting to stay spoiler free here so stick with me. There is a scene where Haley and Maggie are running out of a house, apparently in fear. Haley looks genuinely afraid whereas Maggie is doing a type of run that is more like a half trot while prodding Haley’s back, seemingly laughing. You know, the kind of run that would suggest one of them cut a fart in a room and they wanted to escape before someone walked in and called them on it? Her character dresses like Dennis the Menace as well which doesn’t help. I was half expecting to see a slingshot hanging out of the back of her dungarees. That wasn’t her choice, I am sure but it is worth mentioning.
Getting a little worse, we have Corey Fogelmanis playing Andy who is Maggie’s non-threatening love interest. His voice is very fragile and I kinda had the feeling he is lacking in confidence. This leads to some of his scenes seeming really forced, awkward, and unnatural. There is zero chemistry between him and Maggie, as well, which detracts from the story. If awkward kissing is your thing you have hit the jackpot here. I have seen more romantic and passionate Glasgow kisses than the kisses these two share but I am not particularly bothered as I am not watching the movie for teen romance.
Dante Brown, as Darell, was unremarkable and really added little to the movie. That has less to do with his acting and more to do with how the plot pushes him to the background. He did have a a line that made me laugh so I’ll give him credit for the delivery there. Again, he seemed lacking in confidence and uncomfortable at times.
Now, onto the absolute worst of all the bad acting offenders (with the exception of the kid wearing shades indoors, attempting to do the robot, in one scene looking like an extra from a 90s kid’s show) Chaz. Played by Gianni Paolo, Chaz is just the worst of the worst. Every time he is on the screen he is overacting and the way he delivers his lines is like something out of a deliberately camp kid’s sitcom. He is almost like an over the top Wayne’s World character. I am pretty sure he was only cast because he has to take his top off in one scene and he is pretty stacked for a small dude. Hey, I hit the weights too, can’t hate the hustle, right?
There is one scene where Chaz suggests changes to Ma’s basement and challenges whether she wants to be cool. The way he delivers the line and how he interacts with Ma is the absolute worst. Man, I couldn’t believe I was actually sitting in a cinema watching that scene. If it was one of those piece of crap movies on Amazon Prime, I might not be surprised but this is a decent budget movie from a big production company. Somebody filmed that and said “Yep, that’s fine, go with it!”. Just awful, I am sure you will know what I mean if you watch Ma.
The above complaints play into a much bigger problem. Ma features some terrible script work and some awful direction. Some of the conversations are so awkward and some of the lines just don’t seem at all natural. Sure, Gianni Paolo overacted but what else was he supposed to do when he read that line in the script? Someone jotted that line down for him and someone directed him to interact with Ma in that way.. It is their job to get the most out of their cast and they failed in a big way.
These are recurring problems but, by far, not the only problems. Reactions are unnatural, extras act awkwardly and, at times, really wooden, and scenes are often messy. Characters are unbelievably dumb and you will be left with your head in your hands at the decisions that they make. Events happen in a bubble with seemingly no consequences and the story drags on for so long that the ending comes spilling out of nowhere like a painful prolapse. There is over an hour of buildup for a 10 minute ending sequence that amounts to one of the most disappointing payoffs in recent memory.
One thing that I feel does deserve some praise is the music. Some of the Music used in Ma was excellent and would be very fitting in an 80’s slasher movie. I really liked it, especially the track that plays as the film ends. This style of music is really coming back into fashion with the recent 80s revival and Gregory Tripi definitely shows a lot of promise when it comes to this style of music.
With all of the above being said, the absolute biggest problem of all is that Ma just isn’t scary. If it was, you could forgive much of the above but it just isn’t. There are a few jump scares here and there but any sense of tension or dread is non-existent.
Ma is an intimidating character but nothing ever manifests from it. There is never any reason to feel concerned for the cast or to fear what might be around the corner. Not that it would matter if the movie was scary. The cast is so unlikable that it wouldn’t matter if they were chilling with Norman Bates on Mike Myers’ sofa as he hosts a BYOB Halloween party, there is no way you would root for them.
In developing Ma, Tate Taylor said he wanted to direct a film about "Something F****d Up" and that really shows. He had no real plot, no real characters, and nothing to work with. He just wanted to create a scary character and put together something twisted. He absolutely, unequivocally, failed. The only thing that Ma succeeds at is creating a somewhat compelling character and providing us with a fantastic character performance by one of Hollywood's better actors. This is the Octavia Spencer show and there is nothing else to say.
If you are a young teenager, you might enjoy it. Maybe you can relate to the kids in the show? Maybe some of the stuff that happens will scare you? I don't know, Ma just really isn't scary. With all the other problems such as terrible acting, terrible script writing, messy story telling, and poor direction; it's almost impossible to recommend. I do think the movie is worth checking out for Octavia Spencer's performance. She is fantastic and very enjoyable. Other than that, you should party at anywhere other than Ma's house.