Arts movie review

An unsatisfying revenge story

‘Ma’ disappoints, frustrates, and repulses

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Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) confronts Maggie (Diana Silvers) and Haley (McKaley Miller) in Universal Picture's 'Ma.'
Courtesy of Universal Studios

Directed by Tate Taylor
Screenplay by Scotty Landes
Starring Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans
Rated R, Now Playing

Ma director Tate Taylor is not doing a great job at improving his thriller track record. His last thriller, The Girl on the Train, was unremarkable and barely memorable at best. Unfortunately, Ma will be memorable only because of how terrible it is. It’s one of those movies where you can only facepalm because of how stupid everyone is.

The premise of Ma is fairly simple: after buying a group of high schoolers alcohol, lonely Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) invites them to start partying in the basement of her home. When more and more teens start showing up to party at her place, Sue Ann begins insisting that everyone calls her Ma. Eventually, the original group of teenagers start catching wind of Sue Ann’s questionable intentions and try to distance themselves from her before terrible things can happen.

Before watching Ma, I had really high hopes for the movie. The concept was original enough, and having Octavia Spencer in any movie is always a plus. I had hoped that the movie would have some deeper social or racial commentary or invoke some deeper thoughts about partying culture, but I got none of that. Instead, I got clichés, Octavia Spencer acting crazy as hell (though I will say her commitment to acting out this role is the only good thing about this movie), plenty of cringey moments that sometimes resulted in uncomfortable laughter from my fellow moviegoers, and lots of throwback music.

Let’s talk about the godawful writing. The five main teens fulfill every classic teen gang trope ever created. You’ve got Maggie (Diana Silvers), the new girl in town; Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), the cute one; Haley (McKaley Miller), the popular girl; Chaz (Gianni Paolo), the mindless jock; and Darrell (Dante Brown), the token minority character who you sometimes forget exists. Out of these five, Maggie is the only one who really gets any character development, but even then she remains pretty stagnant for the majority of the film. She’s new in town and decides to make fast friends with the other four by joining in on their drinking and weed-smoking adventures. She quickly opens up to them through these acts of delinquency and eventually ends up dating Andy. The rest of the time she basically sits on her hands wondering if she should keep partying at Sue Ann’s when it’s really obvious that she knows Sue Ann is a really sketchy person.

How the group ends up at Sue Ann’s place to party makes you want to slap some sense into all of them. In order to get their next care package of alcohol from Sue Ann, they have to follow her to some undisclosed location to complete the transaction. That should have been their first warning to leave the situation ASAP. But no, instead, they follow along and follow her all the way to her house, where she then invites them to instead drink and have fun in the comforts of her dusty, old basement. Warning number two. After some time, Sue Ann heads downstairs with some pizza rolls. Chaz starts badgering her about something I can’t even bother remembering, causing her to pull a gun on him to make him strip. Once the jock is naked, Sue Ann begins laughing and claims that the gun is broken, a relic she found while cleaning the place out. That marks warning number three for me. If I had been any one of those kids, I would have hightailed it out of there as soon as a gun appeared in that old lady’s hands.

There are also just a lot of unexplained things in the movie. Later on in the movie, some murdering happens but there’s never any form of consequences for Sue Ann. For example, at some point, one of the bodies is dumped right in the middle of the kennel in the vet office where Sue Ann works. Does the actual vet, who runs the office, ever call in the body to the police? No. Do we ever see what happens to the body after it gets dumped? No. So is the body just left out in the open for the rest of eternity? Who knows? At this point, probably, especially considering no one can seem to be bothered to do anything aside from drinking, drugs, or sex in this movie.

You also can’t help but wonder where all the money’s coming from. How in the world is Sue Ann funding these parties that are presumably happening either every single night or every single weekend? When you think about it, she needed the money to renovate her basement, get new furniture, install sound equipment, and supply enough food and drinks to satisfy dozens of teenagers on a regular basis. Not everyone can just dish out that kind of money on the fly, and it’s never explained how on earth she pulls this off without going broke.

Everything else about the movie is remarkably stereotypical. The setting is a nondescript small town where everyone knows everyone. The soundtrack is a bunch of throwback songs, of which I can only remember one (“Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas) because the song started with Octavia Spencer kicking down a pyramid of red Solo cups.

I think what speaks the most about this movie is that it just tried too hard — or maybe it didn’t try hard enough? There are a lot of moments where, if this movie had actually been a good thriller, the movie could have been really terrifying, but instead it just invoked laughter or groans of frustration that could have been easily confused for reactions to a dumb, silly comedy. The gore is also cringe-inducing for the most part. A lot of it is unnecessary and only included to up the nonexistent edge factor of the movie.

When Ma ended, the guy sitting next to me literally laughed for a whole minute. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s the kind of reaction any thriller-branded movie should get. In this case, however, it was well-deserved.