UNIVERSAL PICTURES (2019)
Director: Tate Taylor
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, McKaley Miller
Ma. Just like me. Short and to the point.
I like me a good horror movie (emphasis on good) and when I heard Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans were all appearing together in Ma, naturally, I got quite excited for this. On a pure-Blumhouse five-million-dollar budget, there was the promise of a creepy, character-driven, intimate affair riddled with atmosphere and fine performances. Tate Taylor directed and whilst promise can be encouraging, it can also be misleading.
The story finds Octavia Spencer’s Sue Ann – aka “Ma” – a seemingly normal lady befriending a group of youngsters who just want somewhere to drink their booze and smoke their…smokes. Ma gives them the freedom of her basement (but they can’t ever go upstairs) however, over time, Ma’s behaviour towards the teens becomes more erratic, possessiveness and, frankly, stalkerish. Suddenly, Ma isn’t so cool anymore and the basement goes from being party central to a little piece of Hell. Well, it kind of does. The opening salvo of the movie (by salvo, I mean sixty minutes) has a slow pace as Taylor introduces his young characters – including Diana Silver’s new-in-town Maggie and McKaley Miller’s Haley – to the story and each other as well as Sue Ann and her backstory. It’s all a bit pedestrian and padded with brief flashes of what’s to come. The final act is where Ma decides to up the ante and throw in the blood and gore but it feels too little too late. The above-stock characters aren’t relatable enough for us to truly fear for them and the story prior to the finale felt too much like box-ticking at times. Setup after setup.
Without Octavia Spencer’s slightly unhinged performance, Ma would have crashed and burned – it’s as simple as that. Sometimes a performer can carry a movie to the point of elevating it above being awful. Spencer isn’t going to be collecting any more golden statuettes for her performance, but it’s as polished and good as you would imagine. It’s all big eyes, strange smiling, stares and a bit of Kathy Bates in Misery as well, she provides the most compelling character. The rest of the cast are solid, though the teens do suffer from feeling a bit too stereotyped at times, there’s a need to rein in some of those buzzwords and attitudes at times. Throw in the aforementioned bumpy pacing and weird character decisions and Ma is held back from really being very decent. The many nonsensical decisions begin to stack up by the halfway point – the teens just trusting the random lady who pulls a gun on them and somehow has their contact details, the parents not shutting the whole thing down properly (i.e. with the law) – and the central crux of Maggie and her mother Erica’s (Lewis) strained relationship was fine but not overly interesting and the subplot of Ma and her daughter felt shoehorned in. Again, something felt missing here.
With some more patience and nuance in the craft, Ma could have been quite decent. The confusion between whether this was a family drama, a horror or a teen comedy prevents this from really ever finding its feet and without Spencer’s stabilising efforts, Ma would have been a total write-off. Instead, it’s just OK.
June 8th 2019