The award for "strangest thriller to hit theaters in 2019 (so far)" has to go to Ma. While the premise of a disgruntled and emotionally disturbed individual unleashing their anger on a group of victims is nothing new, the collective creative minds that produced Ma certainly are intriguing. Director Tate Taylor, best known for his 2011 Oscar-winning dramatic film The Help, joined forces with comedic writer Scotty Lances (Workaholics) to create a leading role for Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (who coincidentally won her Oscar as the amazing Minny Jackson in Taylor’s The Help). With three figures outside of the horror world leading a pulpy thriller, the union begs the question, “why this movie and what will be done to elevate it above other revenge thrillers?” While Ma does take strides to give a more comprehensive view of the effects of bullying, harassment, and trauma, it still feels like a modern take on mid-tier thrillers without much to say.
Ma follows a group of young high school students living in a small Ohio town. The newest member to the group, Maggie (Diana Silvers), is reluctant to join in on the other teens’ desire to drink and party all night, but eventually, she eases into their lifestyle. With her mother’s (Juliette Lewis) demanding casino job leaving her home alone often, Maggie spends more and more time with the gang, including Haley (McKaley Miller), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), Darrell (Dante Brown), and her new boyfriend Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). One day when trying to have a willing adult purchase beer and firebombs for them from the drug store, the group meets a kindly veterinary technician named Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). Sue Ann gives the kids a break and supplies them with drinks, but insisting they party safely, she later demands that they only drink in her basement. The teens continually visit Sue Ann’s party basement, whom they affectionately now call Ma, until Ma’s presence begins to frighten Haley and Maggie. With the group pulling away, Ma does anything she can think of to keep them in her life, revealing she has a troubling past with Andy and Maggie’s parents.
On the surface, Ma seems to follow a fairly predictable plot: a mysterious woman who appears kind and unassuming slowly unravels and uses various torturous means to enact revenge. Glenn Close’s chilling portrayal of Alex Forrest in 1987’s Fatal Attraction is an example of this well-worn concept. However, when the film gets into its second act, Ma takes more cues from Clint Eastwood’s 1971 thriller Play Misty for Me. Similar to Jessica Walter’s turn as Evelyn, a fan obsessed with a radio DJ, we get a deeper look at Sue Ann’s past and current mental/emotional state. While her past trauma does not excuse her current actions, it does allow the audience to pause and remember the pain that bullying can have on teens. Unfortunately, the film’s many steps into pulpy horror and action often undermine these deeper themes, making it feel like a valiant effort to bring humanity to a villain that doesn’t meet the mark.
While Spencer is as brilliant as always here, even her ability to straddle comedy and drama doesn’t make Ma feel any more poignant or fresh than the past thrillers of the same vein. The camp factor appears in small doses, such as in the fast-paced violent third act, but even those moments are too few and far between to bring Ma over to the side of pulpy horror. The violence isn’t too shocking for an R-rated flick, and apart from one sudden death, the resolution of Sue Ann’s vengeful rampage feels hollow and random.
In all, the viewer is left to navigate a film with an identity crisis. Ma is by no means a must-watch thriller, but it’s also not an experience to be avoided. For fans of revenge-driven thrillers, you could do worse than Taylor’s take on the sub-genre. Just don’t expect anything too revelatory outside of Spencer’s solid performance.