Starring Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans
Directed by Tate Taylor
Distributed by Universal Studios
Octavia Spencer is an incredibly gifted actor; on this, just about everyone can agree. So, when her latest thriller, Ma (2019), hit theaters it was no surprise to hear unanimous praise heaped upon her performance. But in that regard it’s kinda like, yea… no kidding. It would be notable if she didn’t nail it. Outside of an expectedly solid performance, what else does the latest micro-budget film from Blumhouse have to offer? Not a whole lot, unfortunately. The filmmakers married themselves to the ethos of “it isn’t how you start, it’s how you finish”, delivering a 99-minute movie that moves like molasses on a cold day… until a batshit crazy finale that seems like it was designed to assist viewers in forgetting virtually nothing of substance has happened for a good hour-and-change.
Maggie (Diana Silvers) and her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), have just moved back to Erica’s small hometown in Ohio after dad decided to exit the picture. There, Maggie immediately hooks up with the Generic High School crowd – featuring all of the same caricature personalities we see in every single horror movie. These edgelords decide to hang outside of a convenience store and harass people in hopes they’ll buy them a bunch of shitty booze only high school kids want to drink (read: Fireball). One kind citizen, Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), agrees to help them out though she later makes an anonymous call to report the whereabouts of the teen drinking. She’s clearly concerned about these inebriated idiots, so much so she decides to invite them over to her house the very next day so they can drink in a safe environment. Hell, one of them even takes to calling her “Ma”.
Well, of course Sue Ann is full of shit and her house holds a secret or two (spoiler: it’s only one, and the script has no idea what to do with it). A series of high school flashbacks fill in viewers on exactly why Sue Ann seems a bit off and… well… let’s just say it isn’t exactly the strongest argument for knocking a person off their rocker – especially when the comeuppance takes a good 30-ish years. It isn’t like someone killed her dog or smacked her mother in the mouth with a crowbar. Eventually, and somewhat quickly, Sue Ann’s thirst for vengeance reaches an apex, leading to a finale filled with horrific retribution… most of which is leveled at people who had nothing to do with her embarrassing high school moment.
That “embarrassing moment” doesn’t hold the weight required to sustain a calculated plot of decades-old vengeance. The trailers for Ma did a fine job of keeping the story under wraps (which is easy when you hardly have one), so I don’t want to delve into any spoilers but the flashbacks explaining Ma’s eventual insanity feel very on-the-nose in regard to current cultural views on sexuality; however, the inciting incident feels under-baked and nearly innocuous in relation to the affect it has on Sue Ann’s psyche three decades later. I wasn’t buying it. Furthermore, the way events play out relies heavily on contrivance and convenience, two frequent cinematic sins I loathe. Sue Ann is an interesting character, often lost in her own head, and Spencer unquestionably gives this film all the gravitas it needs… but that’s about it. One great performance alone can’t shoulder the onus of a weak script…
…and Spencer’s performance is the only one worth singling out. She portrays Sue Ann as distant, stoic, but also cunning and vindictive. It’s a layered character brought to life with nuance Spencer nails so effortlessly. Allison Janney is solid during the four-minutes-and-change she appears on screen, and Juliette Lewis does well enough playing a mom, but the bulk of the film focuses on a bunch of stupid-ass high school kids, none of whom are sympathetic or interesting. The only character the film attempts to have viewers empathize with is Maggie – and she isn’t magnetic in the least. Every good film needs to have at minimum one character for which the audience can root or feel something – could be a hero, could be a villain; this film has neither.
The crisp 2.39:1 1080p 24/fps digital presentation is highly proficient and shows few, if any, flaws. Fine detail and overall definition are exceptional, adding a touch of tangibility to Ma’s environment and its surroundings. The color palette is moody and dark, with strong saturation and excellent contrast. A good portion of the film takes place at night or within the confines of a dimly lit basement, with stable black levels and shadow delineation maintaining image composure throughout.
An English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track delivers a richly textured soundfield to viewers, highlighted by composer Gregory Tripi’s intricate instrumentation. While I may not have been a big fan of the film, Tripi’s score quickly won me over with creepy cues and a general air of uncertainty that propels the film’s unraveling mysteries. Dialogue is well prioritized and nicely balanced amongst an immersive soundscape of party-going atmosphere and high school shuffle. Later, when the film kicks into overdrive the immersion increases and there are a few solid LFE moments when the subwoofer is called into duty.
- Alternate Ending
- Deleted Scenes
- Creating Sue Ann
- Party at Ma’s
- Theatrical Trailer
Ma feels like the first draft of a script that never got around to deepening its mysteries and tightening up its core group of characters. Spencer is dependable as always but even she can’t carry the entire film on her own and the warped finale only serves as a minor wake-up to the ennui that precedes it.