Starring-Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers
Scott’s Review #949
Reviewed October 22, 2019
Marketed as a slasher film based on the trailers, Ma (2019) impressed me immensely as my expectations of a standard horror film were superseded by a more complex, perfectly paced psychological thriller. A fantastic performance by Octavia Spencer, and dare I mention an Oscar worthy one if this were a different type of film, the actress effortlessly brings vulnerability to a not so easy role to play. The finale is disappointing, and the film throws in a few too many stereotypes, but nevertheless is a very good effort.
Set somewhere in remote Ohio, but looking more like the southern United States, teenager Maggie Thomson (Diana Silvers) and her mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) return to Erica’s hometown after her marriage fails. Reduced to a job as a cocktail waitress at a local casino, she encourages Maggie to make friends. Maggie falls into the popular crowd as Erica reconnects with high-school friends who are mostly the parents of Maggie’s new friends. Sue Ann (Spencer) bonds with the cool kids by purchasing them booze and holding parties in her basement much to the displeasure of the parents.
The audience soon knows that something is not right with Sue Ann. She forbids the kids from ever venturing to her upstairs and slowly develops a needy attachment to the teens. Flashbacks begin to emerge as clues to her connection to the other parents and her plot for revenge. The incorporation of a place in the house to avoid is a common horror gimmick that always works well. Inevitably, someone will venture to that area of the house and a secret is revealed. Ma is no different in this regard.
How wonderful to see more diversity, and specifically among the African-American population, represented in the horror genre. Typically, other than at best being cast as a best friend or in small supporting roles, the horror genre has been an all-white affair. Thanks to Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) horror films have recently included all black casts and have been tremendous hits. Let’s hold out hope that the Asian, Latino and LGBTQ communities will receive more inclusion and bring a freshness to a key cinematic genre.
The film belongs to Spencer. The Oscar winning actress must have had a fun time with this role and gets to let loose during many scenes. She goes from coquettish to maniacal, sometimes within the same scene, with flawless precision and gutsy acting decisions. My favorite Sue Ann is the unhinged one as she slyly threatens to cut one male character’s genitalia off. She smirks and uses her large, expression filled eyes to her advantage. Psycho has never looked so good!
The climax, so important in horror or thrillers, to follow through and capitalize on the build-up, ultimately fails in Ma. Once the big reveal surfaces and a childhood prank is exposed, the trick hardly seems worthy of a killing bonanza. A mousy Sue Ann performed fellatio on a nerd instead of her crush. Even those involved on the outskirts are blamed and waiting twenty years to exact revenge on her tormentors (most of whom have repented) doesn’t seem plausible.
Ma (2019) contains a hefty cast of stalwarts but it’s Spencer who brings the sometimes-generic material and trivial conclusion to crackling life with her brilliant portrayal of a damaged woman. Allison Janney, Lewis and others add respectability when the film teeters too close to mediocrity with its teen character cliches, but the film excels when it focuses on character rich story and unexpected plot points.