Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Scotty Landes
Stars: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers
I went into this film only knowing it was a Blumhouse production, and if you want to enjoy it, I suggest you do the same. I’ve since seen other reviews online which say the trailer practically gives the whole film away.
I had a very different experience, but even going in ‘cold’ it didn’t take me long to see this wasn’t typical Blumhouse fare. Juliette Lewis and her daughter arrive in a new town. Lewis has got a job at a casino so her daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) ends up spending a lot of time alone until some cool kids befriend her and introduce her to the fun world of underage drinking. Only one problem: getting an adult to buy the booze for them. After several failed attempts, kindly Octavia Spencer agrees to buy them what they need, and then she suggests they hang out in her basement to drink if they need a safe place where the cops won’t stumble upon them.
OK, it’s a slightly odd offer, and Ma (as Spencer becomes known to the kids) has a very strange sense of humour, which should be a huge red flag no matter how intoxicated you are. But the kids think they’re in control of the situation so continue to use Ma’s basement, and pretty soon it becomes party-central for the school. But what are Ma’s real motives for having these kids in her house?
I think there’s an interesting point to be made here about gender politics, which seems to be influencing a lot of movies – for better or worse – currently. If the roles in this movie were reversed and some middle-aged man bought a bunch of kids alcohol and then invited them to his house he would probably be reported and in jail by suppertime, but a female character is somehow more trustworthy and less threatening… or at least that’s what we assume. Is suggesting women can be dangerous to another step towards equality?
This film wears its influences on its sleeve, with a very direct nod to Misery in the film as well as an ending that has echoes of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Both are films about the emotional fallout after someone important to the main character is taken from them (even if one is fictional), and that’s the dominant theme in Ma too. But it’s Annie Wilkes, not Mrs. Danvers who is probably the best comparison to Ma. They both have a sweet personality that they show to the world, but if angered their claws can come out in a second.
Something this film gets right and lots of other films of its ilk get wrong is sympathy for the ‘monster’. This is a trait that goes right back to the 1933 King Kong. Even though he was ‘the baddie’ of the story, who didn’t get a lump in their throat when they saw the big ape plummet from the Empire State Building? Sometimes it’s more effective when the ‘monster’ of the film can be shown as just as much of a victim as those it preys upon. Ma is a very damaged character and I did feel for her, partly due to Octavia Spencer’s brilliant portrayal. Her past might not excuse her actions, but it does explain them to some extent.
Overall Ma is a solid little thriller. It ends very abruptly and I would’ve preferred a little epilogue to tie a few things up, but that aside it’s very watchable. There’s no supernatural element so I hesitate to call it a horror, despite its stability. It could’ve been much more brutal and raw, but Blumhouse has made no apologies about aiming their films at the teen demographic, and with this film’s message about bullying and its effects they’re probably right on target. So don’t expect anything like Misery’s hobbling scene, which will stick in your mind for days (or years?) after. It’s scary with a small ‘s’ but for a teen date movie it’ll do the trick.