Ma is a trashy exploitation flick about a delusional sadist and a sensitive character study of a lonely middle-aged black woman, and perhaps the most shocking thing about this thriller is that it is content to be both at the same time. Its overarching sensibilities mostly complement each other and, in the process, yield an addictively watchable movie that is roughly as delicious as it is nutritious. Ma is cinema as avocado.
Ma director Tate Taylor’s previous offerings include the well-intentioned but enormously misguided The Help and the dubiously intentioned and similarly misguided The Girl on the Train. Ma is more modest in virtually every way (its reported $5 million budget is a fraction of what those movies cost), and more lovable for it. This is a scrappy, nasty little movie that is as much about throwing back and revisiting one’s youth, as it is a throwback itself.
Minor plot spoilers ahead.
The teenagers that populate Ma are cute and dumb (watch McKaley Miller’s Haley gasp, “Guys, this is sick!” over the prospect of being served pizza rolls), and their priorities center almost entirely on hanging out and getting fucked up. Much like their parents, who largely went to the same school and didn’t stray from the sleepy Ohio town with nothing going on in it where Ma is set, they aren’t really going anywhere and don’t seem much to mind. They’re like a gaggle from an ’80s slasher grafted onto this modern yarn. I found this refreshing. I believed them and enjoyed spending time with them way more than I did the principle characters of Booksmart, a smarmy movie in love with its own prosocial goodness (so in love it’s been even more explicitly stated in its press cycle).
Scotty Landes’s Ma screenplay manages a modest sense of social consciousness with moments of genuine weirdness, like when in a mall, one character demands another go eat egg rolls with him and announces for no discernible reason that he’s going to put ketchup on them. There, Landes’s grasp on the mundanity of small-town white teen living is so specific that it approaches artful. It’s the details that really make Ma sing. Protagonist Maggie (Diana Silvers, who was most recently seen in Booksmart and is much more persuasively banal here) and her mother Erica’s (Juliette Lewis) domestic lives are decked out in the beiges and browns, the low ceilings, relative clutter, and uncoordinated non-aesthetic aesthetic that telegraphs the lower middle class with a nondescript precision. Erica serves cocktails in a casino, donning to work each day a uniform of a bedazzled bowtie and cleavage-revealing dress, and Lewis’s ability to disappear into her role as a hard-working thus absentee mom is so seamless that you might forget to be impressed by it.
Ma’s main action was revealed clearly in its trailer—a bunch of underage kids who want to get fucked up befriend an unassuming older woman, who buys them booze and lets them party at her place. When she gets a little obsessed, they lose interest, which only makes her more obsessed. Violence ensues.
Coming out of a different era, basically any era other than the present moment, the explanation of the pathos of the lonely older woman, Sue Ann (known to her young friends as “Ma”), would have been shoehorned into the final scene if explained at all. Ma, though, plays out the causes of Sue Ann’s alienation throughout the movie, via both flashbacks to her days as a mocked teen in high school (and seemingly one of few black kids in her school) and the present-day abuse she withstands in her veterinary office workplace, where her boss barks at her like she’s some animal. Ma complains of a headache and the veterinarian she works for tells her to take horse tranquilizer. (The vet’s played by Allison Janney, whose completely straight reading of her outrageous handful of lines telegraphs one giant wink.) When Ma finally does find her people in the form of teenagers, it’s certainly a little weird, but the fun she conjures is pure joy—she’s having the high school experience she missed out on, complete with the music of the era (Debbie Deb’s “Lookout Weekend” is featured multiple times, including a creepy acapella version Ma sings when cutting out yearbook pictures of her new friends). Taylor empathizes with his character enough to allow her revel in what she missed out on without it being one giant joke that she’s the butt of.
The movie, of course, wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t for the work of Octavia Spencer, who allows the title character dignity by playing her with restraint. Running around in a grown-out mushroom ’do that hypothesizes what The Facts of Life’s Tootie would have looked like if she stayed stuck in 1982, Spencer never quite goes over the top, though you get the feeling that she always has said top in her sights. Even when Ma starts losing it and mows down a character head-on in her car (and then immediately, in yet another turn of events that could only happen in Ma, cranks Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” as she speeds away), her decisions follow a certain logic. Ma is not just some deranged boogieman, nor is she very different from the characters that surround her, who also battle with status anxiety and questions about their worth. Erica has moved back to her hometown after failing to make it in Hollywood, we learn from yet another adult character, Mercedes (Missi Pyle), who never left, presumably partied like the kids that befriend Ma (the old rock pile is an out-of-the-way drinking spot handed down through generations), and in fact never stopped drinking heavily—so much so that she’s too sauced to understand just how sad she appears. Ma is low-key about the fear that eventually sets in that one’s life has peaked in high school and the ensuing life is not of much value. Ma, the character, is working off a deficit having never found success in the former arena.
Major spoiler ahead.
I’m going to spoil something now because I think it is important and impressive. A huge part of Ma’s resentment carries over from a sexual assault she experienced in high school, where she was made to think she’d be meeting a male character in a dark closet for oral sex. That character, though, deceived her, sending someone else instead, which she only learned after the blowjob was completed. Upon opening the door to the closet, she emerged in her school’s hallway to be greeted by that classmate and the rest of his friends, who all laughed, having been clued in. So not only was her consent violated, but she was then humiliated for it. The movie inevitably leads to her confronting the classmate who set her up, Ben (played by Luke Evans, who in a definitive show of the classiness at hand, is introduced in an early scene in which his character is receiving a blow job in his car in broad daylight). She captures Ben and she ties him to a bed, threatening him with castration. “What you did to me. The humiliation. It never goes away,” she tells him.
The deceit is positioned as the most formative moment in Ma’s early alienation, which places this movie within cinema’s rape-revenge tradition. That Ma is still carrying her trauma around some 20 or 30 years later strikes me as one of this movie’s most responsible suggestions (albeit, it’s handled in a particularly ham-handed manner, one very much in line with the rape-revenge subgenre, as it turns her into a murderer). It made me think of Carol Clover’s comment in Men, Women and Chain Saws that Jonathan Demme’s 1988 prestige rape-revenge thriller The Accused “ends where many women’s fear beings, at the moment the jury delivers the guilty verdict” and that “its implication that the story is over when the men are sentenced is pure Pollyanaism.” We don’t get a sense that any of Ma’s tormentors ever suffered for what they did for her, but we do get that sense that when it was over for them, it was just beginning for her.
It all culminates in a final 20 minutes that is gruesome and more outrageous than what came before it. It might have seemed unearned if we didn’t already know to expect this movie to outdo itself at any cost and/or make a full lean toward horror, which is so hot right now. It’s an ending that requires the dumb teens to make stupid decisions, even for them, and a good example of Ma’s plotting flaws (not to mention a great debt to Carrie that becomes only more apparent in its final minutes). But even at its most base, Ma’s there to flash insight where you didn’t see it coming. As she rants and raves to the teens who have made the transition from friends to prey on her volition, she stops at the token black kid Darrell (Dante Brown) and comments that these types only allow “room for one of us” before slathering white paint all over his face. The topic of race is only implicitly broached up until that point (Ma’s house is almost entirely flooded by white teens in its hotspot heyday), but there she goes, telegraphing that she’s been taking stock the entire time, that this very point has not gone unnoticed. At almost every turn, Ma will surprise you by being smarter than it previously let on and that it does so subtly is nothing less than a gift.
Ma is in theaters on May 31.