An absolute abomination, that Tate Taylor’s “Ma” is, shouldn’t find its way to the big screen. Regrettably, it somehow did, forcing me to waste more than 90 minutes of my life. You, on the other hand, can be still saved from that.
Erica (Juliette Lewis) moves her daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) to a small town she once lived in. Maggie quickly finds herself a group of friends in the local high school. One day, while trying to buy alcohol in a liquor store, they get to meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a strange but nice lady. She provides them booze and even lets them party in her basement. Soon, Sue Ann, known better as Ma, invites more and more people to the basement, but her hospitality isn’t limitless.
There are directors at some point begin to roll down a steep mountain in their careers. Tate Taylor, right from a peak of getting close to an Oscar nomination (“The Help” from 2011), already went downhill in 2016 thanks to a fantastically stupid book adaption of “Girl on the Train”. In “Ma”, Taylor confidently cements a certain position of a wannabe thriller auteur whose films are pathetic, straight-to-nowhere products.
And “Ma” in particular is something that all the people involved should be ashamed of.
The biggest issue of “Ma” is its dead seriousness. Early in the film, Taylor attempts to cut a slice of drama from Maggie and Erica’s move from vibrant San Diego to a godforsaken small town. But even if they need to fit a hectic community, it’s far from something palpable and real. Maggie finds herself friends thanks to her bottom (one of the girls walks up to her and starts the conversation by saying “you’ve got a nice butt”), while Juliette Lewis’ jaded grimace is the only sign that her work in a casino is a struggle. The point is none of these two goes through anything particularly difficult (other than acting in this dumb movie). The result is a low-quality dramatic lining that deserves no more than a shoulder shrug.
Things should, theoretically, get better once Octavia Spencer takes over. She’s obviously the core of “Ma”, the reason why anyone could be invested in the story (and why it probably got financed too).
Sue Ann’s character is explained by short flashbacks of traumatic childhood, which explains both her motivations and weird, out-of-the-blue anger bursts that Ma occasionally displays. Ma is a light-hearted person, but there is a creep inside her too.
Lamentably, even a presence strong as Spencer can’t turn this stinker into something more enjoyable. She drowns in the shallow pond that both Taylor and Landis dig for her in “Ma”, delivering her character’s most defining moments with little-to-zero interest. This is mostly visible in the film’s ludicrous finale – Spencer’s agonizingly farcical, but with Taylor’s direction being so stern, it’s not grotesque but simply unbearable and misplaced.
Landis’ idea for a story could have worked under different circumstances. Most importantly, “Ma” needed much more suspense, and less of an obvious reason for Sue Ann to do what she does. Essentially, the idea of a woman who likes to party with teenagers and lets them do that in her own home sounds corny, but at the same time – promising. Spencer could even carry the story alone, but only if Ma was more bonkers and unpredictable. Without a clear motive and a sloppy character development, Ma could turn into pure evil – a harrowing figure that’s not quite comprehensible for us, but hella creepy.
In the end, after a few particular scenes, it’s just hard not to see the big revelation coming from miles away. And once you already know what Taylor and Landis have up their sleeve, there is literally zero entertainment in watching “Ma”. Save yourself from that nightmare, and find a good horror movie to watch this summer.
Dir. Tate Taylor
Hate Grade: 9/10