Ma (2019)
Two and Half Stars

In many ways, Ma is a study of contrasts:  It has an ambitious and thoroughly weird premise that gets deployed in a fairly bland, straightforward script.  Talented actors tangle with thinly-developed characters.  The film alternates between long stretches of derivative storytelling and a few genuinely spooky moments.  There’s a smart, devilish horror movie buried somewhere in Ma, if only the filmmakers didn’t keep its freak flag flying at half-staff.  It’s quite the conundrum:  Do you reward something like this for successfully painting by the numbers?  Or should it get dinged for deliberately avoiding the cockeyed cult classic it could’ve been?

Ma’s logline must’ve read like a Scooby Gang version of Misery, with some John Waters and John Hughes sprinkled for good measure.  The story begins with young Maggie (Diana Silvers) and her mother (Juliette Lewis), as they get settled in Blandsville, USA.  She soon falls in with a modern-day Saved by the Bell squad, who promptly go trawling for an adult proxy to supply them with booze.  They get nothing but contemptuous smirks until Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) reluctantly agrees to a liquor run.  At first, Sue Ann seems innocuous enough, but it ain’t long before her sociopathic tentacles pull the teens into her grungy basement.  She makes an irresistible offer:  The gang can get full-on wasted within her safe confines, provided they don’t drive.  Sue Ann, who becomes known as “Ma,” grows clingier and more belligerent.  It eventually becomes apparent that Ma has a violent, deeply emotional agenda that involves both the kids and their families.

That description probably makes Ma sound more morbidly fascinating than it really is.  Granted, this story is a fascinating, ungainly hybrid of several wildly different sources, but much of the plot moves with connect-the-dots simplicity.  Like most horror movies, this one relies on its principal characters becoming increasingly oblivious to all the red flags around them:  First night in the basement, Ma whips out a revolver and points it at the kids.  They keep coming around.  It’s obvious she has some creepy, murderous shit going upstairs.  They keep coming around.  She angrily blows them up on social media and gets busted telling pathological lies.  They keep coming around. The filmmakers try to present these kids as intelligent and well-rounded, only to slowly extract about 20 IQ points apiece as the story progresses.  Maggie, in particular, seems way too smart to be this stupid.

Ma‘s biggest bright spot lies in the deliriously unhinged performance of Spencer.  At first, her character scans as pitiful and sympathetic, but Spencer slowly cranks up the batshit thermostat until Ma goes into full-on Kathy Bates Beast Mode.  The final act of the film achieves a kooky alchemy of cringeworthy violence and darkly poetic humor.  It’s a sample platter of what the movie could’ve been as a whole:  A smart, salty horror-comedy, with Spencer as a molten, middle-aged Carrie out to right the wrongs wrought by all the popular kids.  As it is, Ma turns out to be a mildly-diverting thriller, a pop fly that could’ve cleared the fences.

Author: Todd Wofford

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