2019 has featured several talented actors/actresses unexpectedly taking on roles of creepy, unhinged maniacs. First was Isabelle Huppert in “Greta” followed shortly after by Dennis Quaid in “The Intruder”. The latest is Octavia Spencer in “Ma” and let’s just say she takes crazy to a whole new place.
Spencer is such a good actress and she can elevate almost any material she is given. And the fact that she almost rescues “Ma” from its missteps is a true testament to her talent. Her character Sue Ann gains the nickname Ma from local teens after she buys them booze and then later opens up her basement to be their secret party hot-spot. No parents, no police, and no protection from Ma as she slowly comes unglued.
But before we get to Ma we are introduced to Maggie (Diana Silvers) who is prepping for her first day at a new school. She quickly hits it off with a group of friends who perfectly embody Hollywood’s shallow and overused perception of teens. They’re dense, obnoxious boozehounds that check all the boxes – the muscular meathead, the beautiful but rude blonde, the nice (but objectively dumb) guy, and so on. The prospect of spending a big chunk of the film’s 100 minutes with them isn’t that appealing.
As the movie progresses Ma gains the trust of even more local teens. Her parties get wilder and we the audience grow more suspicious. Probably because Ma’s behavior steadily gets weirder and weirder, so much so that even our group of dim-witted teenagers begin noticing. And along the way some pretty effective flashbacks are tossed in to give reason to Ma’s madness.
Writer Scotty Landes puts a lot on the shoulders of backstory and much of your reaction to “Ma” could be shaped by how much you care about the reveals. Outside of that, most of the fun is found in Spencer’s performance which ranges from menacing to darkly funny. Several other familiar faces pop up including Juliette Lewis as Maggie’s single-parent mom, Luke Evans as a concerned parent, and Allison Janney in a small but very Allison Janney-like role.
The teen characters don’t fare quite as well and a lot of their back-and-forths are pretty uninspired. I mean there is only so much you can pull from what can best be described as run-of-the-mill teen stock characters. There is simply not enough about them that is original or even remotely interesting.
“Ma” is a Blumhouse film that follows the company’s very successful blueprint – make a horror movie with a minuscule budget and then secure a wide release so that almost any box office total is profitable. “Ma” will turn a profit (mainly due its tiny $5 million budget) but it hasn’t pulled in the audience’s quite like other Blumhouse pictures. I’m not surprised. I actually went into “Ma” expecting more than what I left with. Spencer carries the film on her back but even she can’t keep the film from being viewed as a missed opportunity.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS