When Ma was first advertised earlier this year, it presented moviegoers with an original and interesting premise for a horror film. What if someone acting friendly toward others was made to be creepy? What if someone who gained your trust was actually the biggest threat to your life? Making the kind neighbor lady the horror villain is a fun idea. That exciting premise, blended with the ideal casting choice of Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer, was more than enough to peak a lot of curiosity. Was that intrigue fulfilled by this tale of a hospitable older woman turned crazed killer? Let’s investigate further to find out.
Ma proves exactly why Octavia Spencer is an Oscar-caliber actor. Her performance as Sue Ann carries the film. She perfectly captures a character who is both the victim and the aggressor at the same time. She plays both innocent and malevolent and never feels out of character. The rest of the cast, including Diana Silvers, Corey Fogelmanis, McKaley Miller, and more, is just as outstanding. Most of the main cast are in their teens and yet they give performances of seasoned veterans.
Ma’s behavior is extremely unpredictable, adding a lot of suspense to the movie. She is having fun knocking over pyramids of beer cans one moment and slamming a teen girl into a wall for going upstairs the next. It’s chilling to never know what to expect from the character, and it never feels random. There are also some rather unpredictable plot elements, like when we find out why Sue Ann doesn’t want anyone going upstairs, that add to the film’s suspense since you can never know what to expect.
The horror imagery is done extremely well throughout Ma, especially toward the end. It’s not just people being murdered like in some other horror films. Mangling a person’s body by casually running them over like a speed bump, sewing a girl’s mouth shut, or painting someone’s face white to change their race are all disturbing enough to make one’s stomach turn.
There are brief scenes throughout the movie that reveal some interesting tidbits about Sue Ann’s past. Not only do these scenes play with the audience’s emotions, but they are vital to the plot as they tell us why Sue Ann behaves the way she does. It’s a helpful mechanic that guides the story along without feeling like a distraction, plus the backstory is legitimately interesting to find out.
Most movies have a hard time showcasing the relationship between teenagers and their parents. They either have an overly toxic relationship, a weirdly close and overly loving relationship, or they don’t have one at all. The relationship between Maggie and her mother in Ma is one of the most realistic parent-teen relationships in film. They have a positive, trusting relationship and spend time with each other, but Maggie’s mother still parents. She still yells at and punishes her kid for underage drinking and breaking other rules. An organic relationship like this adds an extra sense of realism to the movie.
Ma contains some nice attention to small details. For instance, Sue Ann’s outfit choices are based on what the teens are wearing in previous scenes. Haley wears a cheetah print top during and early moment, and then we see Ma don a similar cheetah print top later on. This level of detail is incredible and shows how well planned out it all is.
The events revealed in Ma’s backstory indicate that she snapped after a mean prank that was played on her in high school. The prank was pretty mean and traumatizing, but I don’t know if it justified a killing spree and torturing people twenty years after the fact. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that mental illness exists, and people don’t always need a reason to snap. I also understand that everyone deals with trauma differently. However, the film does not showcase mental illness whatsoever. It also does not show us what happens following the prank, which is important. If it was so bad, why didn’t she move away after high school? Did the bullying continue or was it just the one prank? If it was just the one prank, was that enough to resort to violence decades later? Was she home schooled afterward, making herself more isolated? There are important details missing, and as a result, the character’s violent behavior seems unbelievable and forced.
One of Ma’s victims, her boss played by Allison Janney, had nothing to do with the cruel prank played on her twenty years ago. She was just Sue Ann’s boss who wanted her to do her job. She wasn’t even mean to Sue Ann. All of the victims are people related to the prank, including the children of those who were involved, except for this one. There was no reason for this one victim, plus the murder happens off-screen. It’s completely random and contradicts the character’s motives from the rest of the movie.
The main group of teens that hang out in Ma’s basement consists of about five or six kids. However, only three of them matter. There are these two characters who are in the main group, and yet they only receive a couple lines of dialogue and have no personality traits. They are just there to make the central group appear larger. The events of the final act should cause us to worry about them, but they don’t. They are tortured and it’s hard to care because we don’t know them like the other characters. Why bother writing them into the script if they aren’t going to contribute to the plot?
Through what a lot of characters say, the movie takes place in a small town where most people know each other. The parents of some of the main teens knew each other, and Ma, when they were in high school. However, multiple characters say they haven’t seen Sue Ann in twenty years. I could understand them not seeing each other often, but not for two decades? That sounds really convenient and unlikely.
The passage of time in the film is really confusing. The movie attempts to show that perhaps a couple months pass, but it feels like a couple weeks. It’s really questionable due to how quickly some things happen, like Maggie and Andy’s relationship blooming and the amount of people who party at Ma’s growing. It’s not super important, but it’s confusing enough to break immersion.
There needs to be some more information given at the end. The movie comes to a close before we find out how the kids are affected by Ma’s attacks, if they were left with permanent scars, if Andy lived or died, or what happened with Genie. There needs to be just one more quick follow-up seen that takes place a couple months later to answer some of these questions. There is a deleted scene on the blu-ray that does answer them, but because it’s not left in the final version of the film, it makes the ending a little abrupt and takes away from some of the payoff.
Maggie’s mom, played by Juliette Lewis, mentions at one point that she’s having a John Hughes movie marathon. Juliette Lewis played Audrey in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which was directed by John Hughes.
Ma is starring Octavia Spencer and was directed by Tate Taylor. The duo has worked together before on the Oscar-winning film The Help. This is probably why Spencer was cast in the first place. The two seem to work well together.
Ma may not be the scariest horror movie, but there is a constant feeling of dread lurking over the film due to Sue Ann’s unpredictable actions and violent behavior. It has some exciting scenes and incredible acting, but is held down by how forced Ma’s motives are and some missing information. By having us see what followed the prank on teenage Sue Ann, the events after the teens escape from modern Sue Ann’s basement, more about the stale characters in the main group of teens, and an indication about how much time has passed, the movie would have been greatly improved.
Ma is a fun-but-forced horror flick that uses an okay story to get to the disturbingly good stuff in the final act.