Ma is a film that gathers two Oscar winning actresses (Octavia Spencer and Allison Janney), another Oscar nominated actress (Juliette Lewis), and a director who made a film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (Tate Taylor, The Help, for which Spencer’s Oscar was given). This is proof positive that all the pedigree in the world doesn’t necessarily prevent a movie from being one of the worst released in a given year.
The sheer star power and talent involved in the making of Blumhouse’s latest low-budget thriller is frustrating enough, but what’s worse is how wasted the premise of the film is. Trapped within Ma’s utter blandness is a story rife with character and potential. Cheap thrills and predictable turns are elevated in the place of nuanced explorations of motivation and trauma. Writer Scotty Landes (Workaholics) has delivered the cheapest possible version of a story filled with filthy rich potential, ripping away everything that could have made Ma great in favor of a story completely absent of a point.
Maybe that’s unfair; perhaps something was lost in editing. The film’s scant 99 minutes does suggest at least the possibility that Ma was cut down to be more palpable to the types of crowds that flock to these kinds of mindless teen horror romps. What’s delivered, however, is a film littered with pacing issues, logic issues, and plain ol’ bad writing. At nearly every turn it is a waste.
Ma follows teenager Maggie (Diana Silvers) who has just moved into the town her mother (Lewis, who’s playing moms now if you want to feel old) grew up in after living her whole life in California. Eager to make friends, she falls in with a group of supposedly popular kids who spend their nights at “the rock pile” getting “fucked up.” In the great booze chase, they meet the seemingly mild-mannered Sue Ann (Spencer) who agrees to buy them alcohol and offers them a safe place in which to party. Soon, however, it is revealed the Sue Ann’s meek demeanor is a façade and that their new friend “ma” has an ulterior motive.
Spencer is, of course, an absolute delight. She seems to understand what this movie is and positively relishes in the opportunity to ham it up and break bad. Her joy in her character is palpable and very nearly comes close to salvaging the rest of the movie. It’s too bad no one else seemed to understand what Spencer did. No one else seems to be having anywhere close to the fun she’s having, resulting in a joyless mess of a film that squanders its admittedly fantastic potential.
Ma is written without any real understanding of how modern teenagers interact with each other and suffers greatly from it. Every line uttered by the film’s teenage stars—who handle the chaff they’re given as adeptly as possible, to be sure—is a contrived mess of cringe-worthy faux-hipness that is laughable for all the wrong reasons.
Top that with a script predictable, familiar narrative that pretty much unfolds exactly how you see it in the trailer, you’re left with a film that’s better off forgetting. Even with Spencer’s valiant and admirable effort to bring shine to a dull production, everything about Ma is an incredible disappointment. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head, you can almost kind of see the psychological case study that the film was going for but, in the end, we’re left with a film that abandons its higher ideals in favor of a lackluster story and disappointing script. Everyone involved deserved so much better.
Ma is now playing in theaters everywhere.