“Ma” is one of the funniest films of the year, which would be great news if this was a comedy. As a horror flick, though, Blumhouse and Universal‘s latest film misses in ways that make this venture wickedly fun, but mostly by accident.
Diana Silvers is Maggie, the new girl in town. After her divorce, Maggie’s mom, Erica (Juliette Lewis), moves them back to her home town. The high schooler quickly falls in with a new crowd of kids who spend their time drinking and vaping at the old rock pile. When they convince Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) to buy their booze, they don’t know they have accidentally opened up long-buried old wounds and set Ma on the path to settle old scores.
It’s great fun to see Octavia Spencer lead a film, and particularly one that is so different from the period dramas of her recent filmography. Her version of Ma is one that could easily lure a bunch of wayward teens into a false sense of security. Ma presents herself as fun and friendly, like the cool aunt that would definitely not tell mom and dad what the kids were up to. Spencer is an Academy Award winner for a reason, and she uses her skills to turn this character into something it could never have been without her.
The main problem with “Ma” is a lousy script that never gives any character, including Sue Ann, room to become a fully realized person. This is the first feature for writer Scotty Landes, whose work has mostly been in television. For a story that relies so heavily on the past, Landes and director Tate Taylor do a moderate job presenting and contextualizing history but aren’t able to connect some of those pieces to the current day. Coupled with sloppy editing, the result is a film that is often unintentionally hilarious as one ridiculous moment leads to another. This might have worked much better as a horror comedy á la “Happy Death Day.”
Some of the undeveloped characters include Sue Ann’s former classmates, Erica (Lewis), Ben (Luke Evans), and Mercedes (Missi Pyle). What they did to Sue Ann in high school was terrible, and unfolds piece by piece. But the line to who they are today isn’t a straight one and doesn’t make a lot of sense. This is most true of Sue Ann, though. Her teenage humiliation doesn’t add up to some of the more diabolical choices she makes.
As Maggie, Diana Silvers is having a pretty stellar month. She has a small role as Hope in Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” which is also in theaters. The cool confidence she displays in that film gives way to a shy, awkward girl in “Ma.” Silvers makes it easy to see the importance of a good director. Her awkwardness is often not precisely a character trait, instead merely the result of odd line delivery or, again, poor editing.
Silvers is joined by a group of kids whose only connection seems to be that it was called for in the script. Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) is Ben’s son, and quickly catches Maggie’s eye. Haley (McKaley Miller) fills the trope of the popular, well-connected party girl, who knows everyone but is very selective about who she hangs out with. Chaz (Gianni Paolo) and Darrell (Dante Brown) are mostly just there and never really get to feel like people. The same is true for Allison Janney, who has little more than a cameo as Sue Ann’s boss. Her presence only leads to unanswered questions.
Putting aside bad editing, undeveloped characters, and major plot holes, “Ma” still manages to be the kind of entertaining movie destined for midnight screenings and cult status. It doesn’t work as a psychological thriller or a high school drama. But when Taylor tiptoes into a type of 80s slasher movie toward the end, he embraces the silliness and delivers an ending that is not at all earned. But the journey to get there has been so weird and wild that it doesn’t really matter.
“Ma” is not a good movie, but it is a good bad one.