Ma (United States, 2019)

May 31, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Ma Poster

On the surface, Ma is seemingly just another entry into the generic horror/thriller category about a seemingly good-hearted stranger who worms her way into the bosom of a group before showing her true (psychopathic) tendencies. Although these movies reached their apex of popularity during the 1980s and early 1990s, they seem to be making a comeback. There have already been two in 2019 – Greta and The Intruder – and more are in the pipeline. Although Ma generally follows the tried-and-true template, director Tate Taylor and screenwriter Scotty Landes have a slightly more ambitious agenda in mind (involving a backstory that’s gradually revealed through flashbacks). They also have Octavia Spencer, whose nuanced performance gives Ma an added dimension.

Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine said “Who needs good art when you’ve got great trash” and that applies here. Although I would stop short of calling this a “gem,” it is at times creepily effective, at least during its first three-fourths. As the film approaches its climax, it loses some of its uniqueness but there’s plenty to like about it before it starts to feel overly familiar.

Although Octavia Spencer gets top billing as the title character, the movie starts out by introducing us to Maggie (Diana Silvers), a 16-year old girl who has relocated along with her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), to the backwater burb where the latter was born and raised. The quiet but good-natured Maggie is quickly adopted by a group of high school friends – party girl Haley (McKaley Miller), serious Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), ladies’ magnet Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and reticent Darrell (Dante Brown) – who invite her to join them in their favorite activity: driving around in a van and getting drunk. To achieve this, they need alcohol, which none of them can legally buy. Enter Sue Ann (Spencer), a middle-aged woman who agrees to purchase everything on their shopping list. What’s more, she offers an attractive party location: her disused basement. She only has a couple of ground rules: no using the name of the Lord in vain and no going upstairs. Both are destined to be broken.

Eventually, Maggie becomes suspicious, daring to look the gift horse in the mouth. There’s something odd about a forty-ish woman opening her house to partying teenagers. Sure, she’s lonely and this gives her an opportunity to reconnect with her youth, but there seems to be something more. As the movie unfolds, we learn what that is and how it involves Maggie’s mother and Andy’s father, Ben (Luke Evans). The pieces are easily assembled – this isn’t an obtuse or complicated jigsaw puzzle – but it adds a little Carrie to what might otherwise be a purely Psycho-inspired entry.

Octavia Spencer’s reputation for playing helpful, generous characters feeds into her against-type effectiveness in this role. (She won her Oscar for her work in director Donovan’s The Help.) She brings a multi-dimensionality rarely seen in horror villains. Her murderous tendencies are no less profound than those of a Michael Myers or Jason but she is given a rounded personality and a relatable motive that explains (but doesn’t excuse) her actions. Spencer’s performance lends Ma a freshness it might otherwise lack.

(One word of warning: the film’s theatrical trailer commits the cardinal sin of spoiling the ending. This sort of thing isn’t unprecedented but it’s egregious in this case. If you have any desire to see Ma, I endorse avoiding the theatrical trailer.)

Ma can be seen as a comfortably recognizable horror story with enough interesting elements to keep it from seeming like a regurgitation of generic tropes and situations. It’s creepy and suspenseful and, although the last act goes on auto-pilot, the film offers a better-than-average experience for those who like their psychopaths unhinged.

Ma (United States, 2019)

Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Luke Evans
Home Release Date: 2019-09-03
Screenplay: Scotty Landes
Cinematography: Christina Voros
Music: Gregory Tripi
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2019-05-31
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Profanity, Nudity, Drugs)
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1