Ma is a strange thriller that attempts to explore the infliction of old wounds upon a new generation. But while the narrative never resolves many of its ideas, and the direction is fairly forgettable, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer does her very best elevate the otherwise-mediocre material.
Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help, The Girl on the Train), Ma follows Erica (Juliette Lewis) and her daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) after the departure of Maggie's father forces them to move back to the hometown Erica had escaped years earlier. While Erica focuses on her new job, Maggie quickly makes friends at high school, including snarky Haley (McKaley Miller) and cute Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). When the three search for an adult who can buy them liquor, their only taker is Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer).
She's a fascinatingly weird character, working through multiple layers of motivation and neuroses. Sue Ann buys the teens their booze, only to immediately inform Andy's father Ben (Luke Evans) of their actions. However, she uses that as an opportunity to bring the party to her house, offered as a "safe haven" for the group, and gradually integrates herself with the teenagers. It's slowly revealed that she wasn't exactly popular in high school, where her crush on Ben led to her being subjected to a humiliating prank. Now, she's trying to gain the social acceptance that eluded her as a teenager. Sue Ann is a pitiable character who a layer of nuance to an otherwise-predictable story. Her actions are typically rash, but with an air of twisted scheming and depressed motivation.
Spencer throws herself into the role, finding tics that make the character feel more real, even as her actions become increasingly outlandish. And trust us, the movie goes some places, including a late plot twist that both A) completely fits within the character and her choices, and B) makes no sense and hasn't been foreshadowed. The rest of the cast tries to keep up with Spencer, and in some cases, the actors can. While Silvers is solid in the lead role, Lewis is terrific in her sequences as the world-weary Erica. Fogelmanis finds moments of charm in the largely bland Andy, but Evans manages to thread a surprisingly complex character as Ben. Allison Janney even appears as a scene-stealing minor character who deserves more to do than what the script gives her.
They try their best to raise the stakes of the pedestrian thriller, which doesn't find any new ground or attempt to be particularly stylish. It's not that it's bad; the film moves at a quick pace and never becomes muddled or confusing. However, it also never finds a way to stand out. The script by Scotty Landes (Workaholics) has flashes of self-awareness and ambition that hint at a far more engaging film, yet Ma jumps from plot beat to plot beat, discarding one compelling idea as soon as it discovers a new one.
In addition to examining what happens when the sins of one generation are visited upon the next, the film also touches on gender, race, sexuality, guilt, family, betrayal and mess of other theme. Each possesses an interesting core, particularly the quiet antagonism Sue Ann toward Darrell (Dante Brown), the lone African-American teen. He's accepted in a way Sue Ann never was, and the film hints at her frustrations with him as a result. But the thread is established, then abandoned, until a single action and line in the climax attempts to bring the point home, even though it hasn't earned it. That's the problem with Ma as a whole: It wants to be something bigger, but keeps falling back on well-worn genre tropes.
There's a complex and compelling film in Ma's DNA. Spencer, who executive producer, obviously believes so, and she goes all in with her performance as Sue Ann. And if the rest of the film could meet Spencer at that level, Ma could have been something special. But the film can't escape the more banal trappings of the genre and become the thriller it so obviously tries to be. Spencer's performance prevents Ma from becoming completely forgettable, but it could have been so much more if the filmmakers had only found something distinctive to say instead of jumbling together a bunch of ideas, and then relying on jump scares.
Directed by Tate Taylor from a script by Scotty Landes, Ma stars Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans, Dante Brown and Allison Janney. The film opens Friday nationwide.