The auditorium glowed with the lit phone screens of a bored audience. The movie ends. Ma was finally over. “That’s it?!” A fellow audience member yelled from the back of the room. Unfortunately, that may be the kindest review this movie will ever get.
Ma begins the way most horror movies do. Mother and daughter, Maggie (Diana Silvers) and Erica Thompson (Juliette Lewis), move to a small town and into a new house. I think you see where this is going. But, wait! It’s actually not stupid! This cliche is actually one of the few saving factors of this movie. The wide area and ruralness of the town give the audience a sense of the world’s openness and allow us to suspend our disbelief without going overboard.
Plot-wise, the movie goes the way you would assume. A new girl (Maggie) goes to a new school and makes friends almost immediately. Like, she just sits in the library to eat lunch and local girl, Haley (McKaley Miller), comes up to her, just straight up puts her number in Maggie’s phone, and tells her that they will be hanging out tomorrow… you know, because that’s totally a thing teens do. Who would’ve thought that all I had to do to make friends in high school was sit in the library and wait for friends to find me?!
After Maggie’s new group of friends pick her up in a Scooby-Doo styled van piloted by her love interest, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), the movie FINALLY starts. With that, the movie introduces us to the rest of its uninteresting characters. The gang heads down to the convenience store to stand around and try to get adults to buy them beer. Now, I tend to be very critical of how movies depict teenagers. But I grew up in a small town very similar to this one and can confirm that this is something we did at that age! For me, this was one of the more believable parts of the story.
Eventually, the kids meet Sue Anne (Octavia Spencer) aka ‘Ma’. And the audience is immediately discomforted by the subtle, flirtatious advancements aimed toward Andy. That’s right, everybody, Dorothy from Hidden Figures (2016) wants to get it on with Farkle from Girl Meets World. It’s later explained why she’s so attracted to him…but it doesn’t really make sense. It’s one of those things where you’re like “Oh, I guess that makes sense… kinda.”
After Ma buys the kids alcohol, she insists that they drink it at her house for safety reasons. Given my own teenage experience, it made sense to me that she would do so. We all knew that one person with the cool parents who let us throw parties and drink at their house because it was far from city limits and they understood that it was safer to do it under their supervision than to let us out in the streets where we could hurt ourselves or others.
This is where spacing comes into full effect. The fact that her house is in the middle of nowhere gives her and the movie an advantage because it is believable that neighbors wouldn’t call to complain about noise, too many cars in the driveway, or the fact that there are a bunch of underage kids openly drinking beer and making out like some sort of frat party Lord of the Flies. The “here’s how far away my house is from everything” effect hasn’t been used this effectively since Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), especially since high school parties that size have a history of being shut down by police.
Just like the audience in the theater, people begin to realize that there’s something off about Ma (both the movie and character). The group begins to think it strange that, despite the age difference, she always wants to hang out with them. To be fair, the idea of someone older providing their house for parties and hanging with teenagers isn’t uncommon in small towns. Looking back as an adult, it’s super weird, but, at the time, we all saw it as normal. We even thought we were cool and mature because someone older than us saw us as equals. Basically, we all hung out with Matthew McConaughey’s character from Dazed and Confused (1993).
The build-up to the realization that she’s not all she seems to be is pretty poor, though. Music intensifies on close up shots of Ma only to have you thinking “Is this supposed to be scary? Is that supposed to be a call back to something?” The movie repeatedly attempts to build tension and unease during times that feel uncalled for and random. It’s like the composer got bored and decided to throw in random, creepy sounds.
If you think Ma sounds bad now, I must remind you we’re only in the first act. From this point onward, the movie is nothing but unresolved plot points. For example, Ma straight up goes on a murder spree and never becomes a suspect, nor does anyone report the disappearance of multiple people. We find out she has a daughter named Genie (Tanyell Waivers) who is in a wheelchair, but can walk and may be sick, but might not be? Okay, somebody’s been watching The Act (2019) on Hulu. Maggie’s dog, Louie, is harmed and on the verge of death, but we never find out if he gets better!
The film actually introduces Ma’s daughter, Genie, very early in the movie… for, like, 2 seconds. The only reason I chose not to mention it, is because when we meet her again, Maggie has to explain to Hayley, and to the audience, who she is. When this happened, I heard the guy sitting behind me go “Oooh, that’s who she is. She’s the one in the wheelchair. Yeah, I forgot about her. Wait, is it?”
As mentioned before, we’re told she has cancer and can’t walk, and it may be Ma who is making her sick, but it never gets resolved or explained. This is just like in The Room (2003) where Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) tells her daughter that she has breast cancer and never brings it up again. Call me a pessimist, but it’s not a good sign when I can easily compare your movie to The Room!
The movie (notice that I have not once called Ma a “film”) just, kind of, ends. I’m not kidding. It just ends! Nothing gets resolved and none of the questions we have are answered. Despite its abrupt ending, Ma does not leave you wanting more. The ending was relieving to the audience only because it meant that we were finally able to go home.
For all the things this movie does wrong – and it does a lot wrong – there are some things that are done very correctly. The use of spacing creates a believable setting. The Citizen Kane style exposition given to the antagonist gives her some sort of motivation and explains her actions to the point where you even begin to empathize with her. It has a brilliant cast. Every character is believable and they even look the part! I like to call this the “Batman and Robin Effect”. The cast has a lot of talent, but they’re unfortunately in a terrible movie.
The writer clearly drew influence from Jordan Peele’s, now iconic, “horror, but not traditionally scary” style of screenwriting. Unfortunately, with plot points that go nowhere, tension where it doesn’t belong, and an unsatisfying ending, I can say, with absolutely no guilt, that this movie is a waste of money and time. If you value either of those things, avoid Ma like the plague! It’s just so, so bad. I am not a harsh critic. I’m the same dude who gave a 14 minute home movie made by 15-year-olds a 10/10 rating. I think that statement speaks for itself.
Ma hits theaters May 31, 2019, and stars Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, and Corey Fogelmanis.
Have you seen ‘Ma?’ Do you agree with this rating? Let us know in the comments below!