Ma (2019)

“Now you know where the party is.”

There’s really no reason to go see Ma when you can pretty much watch the entire movie in less than 3 minutes. The film’s trailer shows us the setup, the turn, and even a few crucial shots of the very last act. All that’s missing is the minor subplot twist, which to be fair is genuinely surprising but hardly revolutionary either. Like its malicious leading lady, Ma lacks restraint and shows its entire hand out of a desperate need to be liked, forecasting and foreshadowing nearly every move and play along the way.

We’ve seen this before. Maggie (Diana Silvers) relocates to a new high school during February, moving back to her mother Erica’s (Juliette Lewis) hometown after her dad found a new woman. At first she eats alone, helps push a student in a wheelchair, and is on the outside looking in. New friends find her though (with all due respect to the actors, the parts are so innocuous that they’re not really worth naming). Her first night with the group finds them hoping to score some alcohol before driving around and partying in rundown corners of suburban Ohio. That’s where Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), soon to earn the title “Ma,” enters the picture. She’s a vet tech and an extremely lonely adult woman looking for friendship in young folks who are living what once was the worst time of her life. We wonder if she seeks camaraderie or some kind of sick revenge.

Ma invites the kids over (an awkward scene that doesn’t click for a single second), using the typical “cool parent” thought that if they’re going to be partying they might as well do it in the safety of her home. She slowly decks out the bungalow’s basement, more people flock to the hot spot, and Ma lights up with the joy that comes from being liked. While the premise of the film is scarily preposterous for how serious the tone tends to be, it’s still within the realm of reason; I’ve admittedly been to people’s homes for a fun night when the fact of the matter is that I’d never set foot in the same residence during the light of day. Ma won’t have that, especially when she senses the kids’ aversion to her very needy and stalking obsessions.

Tate Taylor’s Ma lures us in during the early psychological chapters (the use of split diopter by cinematographer Christina Voros has the look of early Brian De Palma) until it unfortunately sinks when the movie speeds through a rushed final act that’s blind-sided by gruesome and torturous horror scenes. It’s a disjointed romp, hardly funny or odd enough to be considered camp material nor disturbing enough to provoke the kind of nightmarish fears associated with home invasion thrillers. Even though the film itself does fall flat, it’s still enjoyable to watch Octavia Spencer play a diabolical and conniving grown woman whose brain has been stunted by the traumatic abuse she experienced as a teen. However, Ma regrettably relegates that important emotional cornerstone to a series of flashbacks, always more focused on acting alarming rather than trying to develop a truly disturbing human who greets strangers at the door with a smile and whose face turns sinister behind closed curtains.

“I don’t wanna hangout at Ma’s anymore.”

Rating: 2 out of 5

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