Octavia Spencer is an amazing actress known primarily for her roles in dramas and even a few comedies, but she is not known as a horror actress by any stretch at least not as the antagonist. That’s what made her latest appearance in a new film called “Ma” so intriguing for me. Directed by Tate Taylor, who previously worked with Spencer in “Get On Up” and “The Help” and who led the simply okay thriller “The Girl on the Train”, a lot of buzz was focused on this actress/director pairing reuniting while Spencer’s against type role adding to the intrigue. The two had succeeded together in more dramatic territory and Spencer has proven to be versatile in her own way, so could they both come together to pull off a psychological horror piece? This question alone was enough for me to give “Ma” a try. Let’s see if this horror offering was worth the buzz. This is my review of “Ma”.
“Ma” stars Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann “Ma” Ellington, a lonely and awkward veterinary assistant who is approached by a group of high schoolers to purchase alcohol so they can party. Among the group members are Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) who just moved into town, popular girl Haley (McKaley Miller), her boyfriend Chaz (Gianni Paolo), their friend Darrell (Dante Brown) and Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) who is Maggie’s crush and whose father Ben (Luke Evans) owns and operates a security company. Ma bonds with the group and invites them over to her place so they have a safe spot to drink. Word gets around about Ma’s welcoming nature and her house soon becomes the go-to spot for high school drunken parties. However, when the teenagers find Ma to be clingy and obsessive they try to separate themselves from her causing Ma to become increasingly unstable. As secrets of Ma’s past are unveiled the teenagers discover there may have been much darker motives behind Ma’s hospitality that put all their lives in extreme danger.
As I said at the beginning, going into “Ma” I felt like there was a lot of potential for something fun and subversive to Octavia Spencer’s normal work. I was even more intrigued when I realized that Diana Silvers was playing the lead beside Spencer having recently seen Silvers’ impressive if small performance in “Booksmart” (read my review here) the week before. Add in the likes of Juliette Lewis, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney, and Luke Evans as adult roles and the cast alone offered a lot of promise. For the most part, everyone lives up to their talents. The main selling point for me was how well Octavia Spencer would portray a psychotic antagonist and she performed as expected, brilliantly. She is delightfully creepy and intimidating owning her opportunity to stretch her acting range beyond the normal inspirational figures she tends to gravitate towards. That was half the battle right there to draw me in, have one of the most respected black actresses of today give me a performance I never expected from her. The rest of the cast isn’t necessarily bad, but Spencer’s performance is definitely the highlight. The problem, however, isn’t with the performers. It’s with the material given to them which is where “Ma” goes from a promising horror thriller to a subpar, underwhelming mess.
The screenplay and script of this film are all over the place with cliched, unimaginative dialogue and a story structure that feels jumbled and chaotic in all the wrong ways. The actors involved try their best to overpower the poor quality of the material but Spencer is really the only one who manages to rise above it. Poor pacing and a lack of focus make “Ma” a chore to sit through most of the time as we see Ma’s mental breakdown occur through what I believe was meant to be a more observational approach where the audience reads between the lines of Spencer’s facial twitches and interactions with others to experience her transformation. This at first seemed like it would be an interesting way to watch Ma go from welcoming old lady to a psychopath. But it only works if we’re actually given something to read and if it’s used deliberately and consistently. Instead what starts off as a slow character study eventually devolves into spoon-fed flashback scenes and Spencer glaring as a text message before showing up at the kids’ school and losing her cool. We’re given every reason why Ma is losing her mind eliminating the mystique or mystery behind her actions turning an otherwise neat idea into a predictable mishmash of contrasting approaches to storytelling that never mesh. In fact, I think her transformation and sociopathy is revealed using almost every conceivable character building trope in the horror handbook which makes learning about Ma and her story more tedious than satisfying. Not to mention that it takes forever for the creep factor to kick in leading to a finale that delivers on the film’s brutal potential but doesn’t feel earned or properly realized.
“Ma” feels like it’s either trying too hard or not trying near hard enough to build up to an epic climax and never really seems to understand how to get from point A to point B or how it even wants to try to get there. It would have been so much more interesting to see Ma’s transformation and decline into insanity handled with more subtlety or see her obsessive nature explored more fully through a little extra passive aggressiveness. “Ma” gives us too much and too little at the same time. On one hand, we know Ma’s back story and what motivates her. On the other hand, she’s not given nearly enough development to help us relate to her or see her as anything more than the creepy and annoying nuisance the teenagers on the screen end up seeing her as over time. I don’t want to be annoyed by the horror movie villain. I want to be scared by them, intimidated, or, hell, even relate to them. There was so much potential for complexity and intrigue in the story but none of it feels fully realized. It’s only bits and pieces of what could have maybe been several good movies thrown together into an extremely underwhelming single picture with a script and screenplay that cares more about getting to the next moment than establishing why the current moment even matters.
And again, this is no fault of the actors. They all do their best to bring SOMETHING from nothing in this film. I blame director Tate Taylor and his co-writer Scotty Landes. To me, “Ma” is a very inspired and fun concept on the surface. It provides an opportunity for a popular and acclaimed actress to present something different to the audience and an opportunity to explore some significant and timely themes like PTSD or the consequences of one’s past misdeeds that could have made for a compelling horror narrative. It could have even been a great “stranger danger” idea. But sadly, Taylor and Landes seemed to have no idea what they wanted this movie to be so instead it feels like they took a whole slew of ideas, put them in a blender and offered up the mushy slush that came out. Thus, we have a movie with a bunch of neat concepts but no soul or really any comprehension of how to make the concept interesting. The mishandling of the material is even more apparent at the end of the film where the picture just ends with little to no resolution for anyone involved. I’m serious, it goes through probably the most intense part of the picture and then it just ends leaving us with no idea how everything was resolved afterward except for Ma’s fate and uses one of the most overused camera shots in modern horror history to cap it all off. You’ll know what I mean if you see it. Add in a completely pointless twist that goes absolutely nowhere and only serves as a deus ex machina for the teenagers in the finale and you have a film with enough pieces to create something neat but the sum of its parts is nearly unwatchable.
This is the kind of movie that really irritates me. “Ma” had so much potential and could have been something truly inspired and fun and instead it’s just a mess. I did not enjoy it, I could barely follow it and honestly, it was difficult for me to even want to understand it. Octavia Spencer is awesome as usual and proves she can play the antagonist role even with crappy material, but aside from her and a cast that really does try, “Ma” fails in almost every way to live up to even the simplest of expectations that I personally set upon it. I guess it did provide an opportunity for me to have fun in a review and throw in some pretentiousness for a few paragraphs, but otherwise, it’s a hollow shell of a film that should have a could have been so much better. Although the finale is delightfully cringe-inducing and presents at least some semblance of the film’s potential “Ma” can barely get off the ground and everything worth seeing in the final twenty minutes feels unearned and too little too late. Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie because I went in expecting so much, but I doubt it. If you want to try it out for yourself then be my guest but for me, “Ma” was a boring, uninteresting experience with a few great things but way too many bad things to warrant my recommendation.