Ma is a psychological horror film directed by Tate Taylor and starring Octavia Spencer. This marks his third collaboration with Spencer since The Help and Get on Up. Sue Ann “Ma” Ellington (played by Spencer) is a lonely, socially awkward veterinary technician. One day, she is roped into buying alcohol for a group of teenagers. She invites them to her house and allows them to party in her basement. However, her ill-guided hospitality becomes dangerous as she harasses the teens and interferes with their lives. As Ma continues her crusade, her traumatic past comes to light and her only source of retribution is through the teenagers’ families.
Spencer deviates from her sassy yet supportive character archetype, and it is the main thing about this movie that works. She is enjoying every bit of her role, making her character as entertaining as she is reprehensible. She can also eke out some surprisingly sympathetic moments, which is a testament to her acting abilities.
The rest of the cast was OK but nothing spectacular. The teenage characters were stereotypical and flat with some awkward performances from the actors. Luke Evans and Missi Pyle make for convincing grown-up bullies, and Juliette Lewis was decent as Maggie’s mother. Allison Janey has an uncomfortably out-of-place cameo that serves little more than a reminder that she was in “The Help.”
The film has minimal variation in location and shot composition. Save for a few scenes, the cinematography is very cut and dry with little visual emphasis on the suspense. The locations are limited, and as a result, the viewing experience is very uninteresting.
For an R-rated horror film, Ma does not go as far as you would expect from a gory Blum-house romp. The film shies away from showing anything extremely graphic, yet despite this, the bloodier moments feel gratuitous.
There is a scene where it appears as though Ma will mutilate one of her childhood bullies, but the subverted route it goes down feels both silly and ineffective. There is another scene where she disfigures the unconscious teens, yet all she does with the black teenager is paint his face white. Again, it did little to elicit disgust and only succeeded in looking ridiculous.
Watch the ‘Ma’ movie trailer below.
As to be expected, the teens make no sense in this movie. They have no obligation to hang out with Ma, yet they see her anyway. They neglect any semblance of common sense when their lives are at stake. They do not call for help, and they do not try to tell anyone about Ma’s behavior. Even when they are chained up at one point, their hands are untied, yet they fail to free themselves until the plot requires it.
The film’s biggest drawback is Ma’s lack of characterization. Beyond her high school trauma, her actions lack coherent explanation. African iconography populates areas of her house, but they serve no purpose other than to generate chills. Her job only factors into the film’s foreshadowing and does not serve as much of a defining character trait. She has a supposedly sick daughter from a failed marriage, but Ma’s relationship with her child is practically nonexistent. It feels like a decision they made for the sake of amplifying Ma’s creepy qualities.
Overall, Ma is an enjoyable yet forgettable horror film. It does its job and leaves without overstaying its welcome. However, it also leaves the viewer’s memory as swiftly as it arrived.