Ma Serves Up Brutal Justice for the Outcast [Fatal Femmes]

Everyone wants to fit in. Regardless of upbringing, nationality, race, gender, or sex, one of the few life experiences uniting human beings across the globe is our genuine desire to find love and acceptance with someone else. This need feels particularly acute in high school. A time to try on different personas and shape our identities, most of us spend these four turbulent years hoping and praying that someone will see who we truly are and accept us—flaws and all.

Unfortunately, this craving for approval makes rejection feel particularly painful. There’s nothing worse than taking a risk of individuality only to be met with scorn and ridicule. Combine this with the raging hormones of puberty and you’ve got a perfect breeding ground for bullying. Tate Taylor’s 2019 film Ma explores this fragile ecosystem with a complicated female killer who occasionally feels like a vigilante. Decades after her own graduation, Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) vows to become part of the popular clique—or die trying.

Her Story

Veterinary Technician Sue Ann Ellington is walking a dog when she crosses paths with Maggie (Diana Silvers) trying to score alcohol to impress her cool new friends. At first, Sue Ann politely demures, but something about this van full of kids seems to intrigue her. Remembering her own high school experience, she offers to help them out and wastes no time inviting Maggie, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), Haley (McKaley Miller), Darrell (Dante Brown), and Chaz (Gianni Paolo) to drink in her basement. Sue Ann sells her home as a safe place to party and quickly adopts the nickname “Ma” while serving them a plate of pizza rolls. 

What initially seems too good to be true quickly turns into a nightmare as Sue Ann becomes more desperate for adolescent approval. She bombs the teenagers with texts and surprises them with liquor, doing everything she can to build her reputation as the cool mom. Unfortunately, this generosity is not altruistic. Flashbacks reveal that Sue Ann went to high school with their parents and suffered a dehumanizing prank at their hands. She seems to be calculating every move to maintain their favor and it’s impossible to tell if she wants belated social acceptance or sweet revenge.

Her Victims

Initially rejecting Maggie’s request, Sue Ann does not agree to the illegal purchase until she spies Andy behind the wheel. He’s the son of Ben (Luke Evans), her high school crush, and Sue Ann becomes fixated on maneuvering Andy into her house. Ominous hints at her instability emerge right away. When cocky Chaz makes disparaging remarks about Ma’s decor, she responds by pulling out a gun and demanding that he strip off his clothes. After a few terrifying moments she plays this confrontation off as a harmless joke, but we’ve seen the dangerous woman behind the cool girl facade. 

It doesn’t take long for the situation to spiral out of control. Casual comments about the group’s male members leave them feeling objectified and Ma takes offense at Haley’s insistence that she needs a man. As Andy’s new girlfriend, Maggie feels particularly uncomfortable spending time in her house. She seems to be getting more drunk than her alcohol consumption would warrant and she’s missing the valuable earrings Ma had admired. Maggie asks Andy not to see Ma anymore, and it seems that she has a point.

Peering into Sue Ann’s memory, we not only see the extent of her feelings for Ben, but also the horrendous prank he pulled. He and his cruel friends play into Sue Ann’s attraction and trick her into giving a blow job to another classmate while the whole school listens in. Seeing the hell they’ve put this shy girl through, her desire for revenge now seems more justified. 

Though she never learns the full scope of their parents’ misdeeds, Maggie does begin to realize that she’s been targeted. After breaking into Sue Ann’s home, she and Haley notice snapshots of themselves taped up on Sue Ann’s bedroom vanity. Plastered to the back are photos of their parents and Maggie realizes that she is being punished for her mother’s mistakes. It’s at this moment that we meet the true victim of Sue Ann’s psychosis. Locked away on the second floor is Genie (Tanyell Waivers), Sue Ann’s teenage daughter. In a clear parallel to the true story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, Genie seems to be suffering from her mother’s Munchausen by proxy. Sue Ann forces her to use a malfunctioning wheelchair at school though she appears capable of walking, and injects her with medicine for an illness she never names.

Her Weapons

Like a true predator, Sue Ann knows how to reel her victims in. She disarms these teenagers with understanding and positions herself as the parent they’ve always wanted. Unfortunately, teens can be fickle and they soon grow tired of her overwhelming desire to hang out. When they back away, Sue Ann tries to hold on even tighter. She lies about having cancer and begs them to give her their time. This lie proves especially effective for Andy who lost his own mother to the disease five years ago. She has weaponized parental love and plays into their adolescent need for stability and protection. 

Once sweetness and manipulation lose their power, Ma’s actions take a violent turn. She stalks Mercedes (Missi Pyle), an especially mean member of Ben’s original crew, and takes an opportunity to run her down in the road. As a vet tech, Sue Ann has an arsenal of drugs and medical equipment at her disposal. She frequently doses the alcohol she serves and uses a mysterious concoction of “medicine” to keep her daughter sick. Young and naive, they have no reason to suspect her motives and can’t tell the difference between being blackout drunk and the symptoms caused by the drugs she keeps feeding them. 

Still suffering from the cruel bullying in her past, Sue Ann cares more about the symbolism of her madness than the actual method. When Ben shows up at her door, understandably angry that she’s been spending time with his son, she drugs him and prepares a hellacious revenge. Ben wakes up to find himself naked and tethered to her bed. After threatening to castrate him with a carving knife, she slashes his wrist and uses an IV to fill his body with canine blood, a fitting punishment for the misogynistic “dog” she believes him to be.

This quest for revenge climaxes in a horrific tableau. After one last night of partying, she drugs all the kids and restrains them with dog collars and chains. Maggie watches in helpless horror as Sue Ann tortures her unconscious friends. She burns Chaz’s abdomen with an iron, forever scaring his treasured physique, and sews Hayley’s lips closed as punishment for her cruel words. She paints Darrell’s face with white paint, symbolically taking his place as the group’s token Black friend.

When Andy wakes up, he attempts to seduce his way out of the situation and offers an uncomfortable kiss. Clearly recognizing his deception, Sue Ann stabs the boy, likely remembering his father’s similar manipulation. With her victims properly punished, Ma orders Maggie to take a picture of the group. Sitting in the midst of her “friends,” she has finally worked her way into the center of their clique and now holds the power their parents once wielded over her. 

Her Motive

Like any great villain before her, Sue Ann’s motive is complex. While she definitely wants revenge, she also seems to genuinely need these kids to like her. She enjoys their parties and seems hurt when they reject her invitations. Sue Ann keeps her own daughter locked away upstairs, forbidding her from spending time with kids her age. If she were to allow Genie to join in the fun, she would become an irrevocable part of the Parent class and would have to choose between lax boundaries and protecting her own flesh and blood. Of course, the overt reason she keeps her daughter sequestered is because interacting with her peers might lead to uncomfortable questions about her imprisonment. 

Though she feels like a prisoner in her own home, Genie does have some freedom. On her first day at school, Maggie crosses paths with the lonely girl, proving that Sue Ann does allow her contact with the outside world. It’s possible that seeing Andy triggered traumatic memories of her own adolescence, causing her to tighten control over her vulnerable daughter. We just don’t know enough about this complex situation to form a concrete opinion. When Genie asks why she can’t join the party, Sue Ann mentions shaving off her hair to preempt bullying from cruel classmates. This heartbreaking conversation implies that she may be trying to recreate the trauma she once experienced with her daughter serving as an avatar. Or perhaps she wants to create a victim with even less power so that she can at least feel superior to someone. 

Sue Ann also seems genuinely interested in reconnecting with her former classmates. Though she quickly dispatches the unpleasant Mercedes, she treats Maggie’s mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) with more kindness. After an uncomfortable confrontation at the liquor store, she claims to have killed Mercedes for her, referencing a moment in which the drunken woman harassed Erica at work. Bumping into Ben at the clinic, she accepts his invitation to catch up over drinks and it’s not until he angrily questions her involvement with his son that she decides to seek revenge. 

Though clearly part of the equation, it would be too simple to say that Sue Ann only wants payback. Her final act clearly shows the pain she’s been repressing and the true motivation behind her violence. After taking the eerie picture, Maggie gets the upper hand and stabs Sue Ann in the back while Erica pulls her hostages to safety. With the house burning around her, Sue Ann slowly climbs the stairs and crawls into bed with Ben’s body. She lays her head on his chest and waits to die, having finally forced the connection she’s always wanted.

Her Legacy

Repeat viewings of the film show a striking comparison between potential outcasts. Ma opens with Maggie’s first moments in a new town and an awkward first day at a brand new school.  Spying her from the hall, Haley wastes little time inviting Maggie into the friend group, actions that mirror the way Mercedes and Ben first targeted a young Sue Ann. But the results differ wildly.

Maggie is immediately accepted and quickly gets a boyfriend while Sue Ann becomes the victim of coercive sexual assault. The only difference between these two shy girls seems to be their appearance. Maggie is white and conventionally attractive while Sue Ann is Black. While racism still thrives in high school settings, Sue Ann went to high school in the 80s, a time in which overt racist bullying was not only accepted, it was the norm. Maggie’s instant popularity only reinforces the approval Sue Ann knows she will never receive.

Before stabbing Sue Ann and saving the day, Maggie insists that she is not her mother, implying that she will stand up for injustice when she sees it. But she’s not really being compared to her mother. Maggie’s true counterpart in the story is Sue Ann. A victim of a cruel system, she has been denied social approval for arbitrary and insidious reasons she cannot change. In the final moments of her life, Sue Ann realizes that she will always be an outcast. She will never have the love Maggie has been freely given no matter how hard she tries. And the rage of this injustice drives her to kill.  

Sue Ann wants her bullies to pay for what they’ve done to her, but underneath that desire is a powerful need to be loved. The greatest irony of Ma is that this love is readily available. Erica has clearly changed since high school and would likely embrace a friendship with Sue Ann. She also has Genie, a daughter who seems to love her unconditionally. But because of what Ben and his friends have done to her, she will never be able to see it. No one would argue that Sue Ann is the villain of Ma. She punishes the kind and the cruel with equal abandon, but perversely, her actions are understandable. All Sue Ann has ever wanted is to be loved and accepted by others. If she can’t have that, she’ll settle for revenge.



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