There are people who will suggest that “Ma,” the Octavia Spencer-starring, Tate Taylor-directed pseudo-thriller film falls into the category of “so bad it’s good.” This critic vehemently disagrees. It is, instead, just plain bad.
The tale focuses on Sue Ann, an adult woman who invites high schoolers to come by her basement and drink under the supposed logic that it’s better they do it somewhere inside than driving around in their car. On an early occasion with the core group of teens at Sue Ann’s (they nickname her “Ma”), the adult woman pulls a gun on them and threatens to shoot one of their number. Naturally they keep returning to her basement to drink after this takes place.
The group, which is led by Maggie (Diana Silvers) and Haley (McKaley Miller) knows that there is something off about Ma, but it simply doesn’t matter. It is the “what would you do for a Klondike Bar” question except turned to alcohol and with the answer, “anything whatsoever, even put my life in obvious danger despite their being other places we can drink more safely.”
“Ma” exists as a movie in order to show the audience Sue Ann’s descent into madness and how the actions of the present are caused by events 20 years past. Taylor slowly builds the history of Sue Ann via flashbacks, letting the audience know she was treated horrifically, and giving reason for Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, and Missi Pyle’s characters to exist in the present. To some extent the actors’ presence is a giveaway that there is more going on than the audience knows, because why else would they be in the film in roles larger than Allison Janney’s extended cameo.
As for what an audience is looking for from such a film, the answer is simple – blood and guts and thrills. Sue Ann’s descent must eventually lead to disturbing moments, but it takes an extended period for it to get there, a period during which little happens in the film other than the teens repeatedly realizing that they shouldn’t be hanging out with Sue Ann but doing so anyway.
When the blood-and-guts moments of the film arrive, they feel too little and too late. The build to them is a disappointment and they are over all too quickly.
On the plus side, “Ma” is well aware of the foolish tropes involved in such low-rent horror movies. It purposefully plays into many of them and gets a bunch of laughs for its stupidity. Spencer, particularly, is marvelous at offering up guffaws as Sue Ann does one crazy thing after the next. Even so, Janney, despite the brief length of her appearance is the best thing the film has to offer.
None of the good, however, makes up for the utter inanity of the teens at the film’s center (the cast also includes Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, and Dante Brown). While Scott Landes’ script understands exactly why Sue Ann might travel down a dark path, its knowledge of teens begins and ends at their being willing to do anything whatsoever to drink and have sex. Rather than being funny, it’s offensive. Rather than being so bad it’s good, it feels lazy. Assuredly there re ways to construct a movie and tell the same story without having to resort to the most mundane, simplistic, banal tropes about teenagers.
There are great moments in “Ma,” and Spencer is pitch perfect, but she cannot make up for the rest of the film that exists around her. Maybe the sequel will be better.
photo credit: Universal Pictures