Ma (2019) – Review

Hard-edged and humdrum horror. 

Mumsy, incisive, empowering; adjectives associated with a number of Octavia Spencer performances. Always a support, never a lead; her dynamic, Oscar-winning screen presence has been given the headliner treatment at last in Blumhouse of horrors offering Ma – think Annie Wilkes-meets-Cable Guy.

Maggie (Diana Silvers) moves to a small, rural American town with her mum (Juliette Lewis), and very quickly makes friends with a Breakfast Club selection of archetypes. In their quest of alcohol-based jollity, they befriend Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a lonely veterinarian assistant who buys their booze with many a wink-wink. She even offers them her basement for partying; but this enables a very unhealthy relationship between host and guests.

Tate Taylor directs, famous mostly for The Help (which also starred Spencer in her most acclaimed role); though this is a far stretch from period niceties. The horror is never scary, per say, but the lingering dread of Spencer’s friend-obsessed Ma (the title she takes on from her partying teens) in the first two thirds is palpable. One particular shot, a briefly employed split diopter (a high of Christina Voros’ mostly solid cinematography), perfectly illustrates the problematic nature of the film’s central obsession.

At 99 minutes, the plot is mostly tight – taking time to let eyebrows raise upon Ma’s first appearances. However, the writing for the teenage ensemble is so on-the-nose, believably constructed from a slice of polemic on millennials. Silvers is most bearable, but her cohorts are cheeky little buggers: one brashly and impolitely asks for food; another says to Ma: “You need a man”; and another gets right up in her face and derides her for not “being cool”. They’re an unlikeable group of brats and bores; any subsequent torment is almost cathartic.

The script is penned by Scotty Landes, who is simply not up-to-scratch with the brilliant coming-of-age films of late; perhaps we’re just spoiled for authenticity, with the likes of Eighth Grade and of late, Booksmart (also starring Silvers). The humour, quarrels (that goes for most of the adult supporting cast too) and bog-standard parleys are categorically jejune.

Luke Evans shows up in a brief father role (even though he never appears with or interacts with his son in the movie), with some considerable gravitas that actually serves the plot. Ma has a fairly horrible back story – one of imaginable embarrassment that would harbour a life-long grudge (think Julia Roberts’ one-episode stint in Friends but way worse) – in that regard, the themes of revenge that pervade the film are effective, if a little hamfisted.

Spencer is the sole reason to really invest; god bless the decision to make her a villain. Inviting fear as much as empathy, trembling and needy in moment and calculatedly stoic in another; it’s a meaty role, one of immense menace and a real treat to behold. Relishing nasty lines like “fucking cunt”, her presence is screen-absorbing – every moment without her feels empty.

Taylor, Landes and Spencer go to some surprising lengths in the closing act; untying the typical soft-core restraints and indulging in some pretty gross acts of humiliation. There are clear strokes of Misery and 2018’s Halloween (right down to the electronica score from Gregory Tripi), but beyond the giddy wincing and what-the-fuck’s, Ma leaves much to be desired. More lead roles for Octavia Spencer though, please.

Trashy horror sharpened by a deliciously wicked Spencer, but hindered by vapid clichés.  

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

Author: Cameron Frew

Freelance film writer. Words on Flickering Myth, Bloody Disgusting, Movie Corner UK and Jumpcut Online. My five favourite films are: 1. The Goonies 2. Forrest Gump 3. The Shawshank Redemption 4. Warrior 5. Whiplash

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