Tate Taylor’s Ma is a knowingly absurd take on stalker movie clichés.
The story begins outside of a small-town liquor store, where a group of bored teens are propositioning every adult who walks by to buy them some booze. One woman eventually relents – Sue Ann, a middle-aged veterinary assistant and former high school outcast who’s more than happy to host the teens at her house. After all, she wouldn’t want them drinking and driving. Just don’t go upstairs, keep the swearing to a minimum, and ignore those thumping noises from the top floor.
Soon enough, the town’s entire teenage population is throwing parties in this woman’s basement, welcoming “Ma” as an enthusiastic participant. As can be expected, things get weird.
At first, the teens are happy to overlook their host’s quirks. Who cares if she pays a little too much attention to one boy in particular, shows up at the high school with a case of beer one time too often, and is a little too needy on social media? And so what, she forced a rude guest to strip at gunpoint – it was a joke! Soon enough, though, her behaviour becomes too unsettling for even drunken teenagers to ignore. They’re dumb, but not that dumb.
What’s a lonely woman to do when her new friends desert her? Bring them over for one last party – and never let them leave.
This may sound ridiculous, and it is. But the good news is, the movie knows it.
At its best, Ma works as an over-the-top send-up of a certain type of psychological thriller – the kind where obsession bubbles over into violence, long-ago grudges fester into elaborate revenge schemes, and no one sees any problem with an obviously unstable person until they’re in the midst of a homicidal rampage.
The movie reminded me of the 1996 domestic abuse thriller Fear, a similarly hyperbolic flick which capped its cheesy, cliche-ridden plot with a climatic home invasion sequence that was truly terrifying. Nothing in Ma reaches that level of scary: the torture-filled climax is more brutal than one might expect, but there’s nothing as memorable as, say, Fear’s iconic doggy-door scene.
(The dogs all survive in this one. The veterinarian, not so much).
Of course, Ma doesn’t want to freak you out too much – it just wants to show you a good time. Scenes of an increasingly unhinged Sue Ann bombarding the teens with frantic Snapchat messages, or brazenly running down a former mean girl with her car, play almost as comedy. The movie never quite crosses the line into parody, but there’s definitely a tongue-in-cheek vibe throughout.
As the titular “Ma,” Octavia Spencer strikes the right tone of campy creepiness, with a touch of sadness. Even at her most deranged, Sue Ann’s still a high school loser at heart, and there’s something tragic about that.
The teenage characters, though flat, are likable enough (particularly McKaley Miller, who brings a good-hearted charm to a character who could have been played as a catty Queen Bee), and Juliette Lewis delivers a strong performance as a single mother whose daughter fall’s into Ma’s orbit. I would have liked to see more of Allison Janney as the no-nonsense veterinarian who frequently interrupts Sue Ann’s machinations (her character is so under-used, I have to wonder if her scenes wound up on the cutting room floor).
In the classic tradition of those made-for-TV cautionary thrillers you’d catch on the Lifetime network on a Sunday afternoon, Ma‘s plot doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. The story has more holes than Swiss cheese, and absolutely no one behaves in a manner that makes any sense. Most incongruous to me was the setting, which can’t decide whether it wants to be a close-knit small town or a large, anonymous suburb; thus, you have a cast of characters who went to high school together, whose kids go to school together, yet who seem to know nothing about each other.
In a way though, that adds to the overall effect, and sends a clear message to the viewer: don’t read too deeply into this one. Just turn your brain off and enjoy the ride.
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Scotty Landes & Tate Taylor