We don’t have nearly enough horror movies about the aftermath and fall out of bullying and how often times bullies can destroy us. We’ve had “Slaughter High” in the past, but we’ve come around to sharp thrillers like “The Gift” and “The Final” which depict the victim less as insane, and more as broken people. “Ma” is kind of that film that approaches the very themes, but never quite knows what to make of its titular villain. “Ma” is a sharp thriller with a killer performance from Octavia Spencer that manages to rise above a narrative that’s very confused about what it’s trying to say.
Spencer stars as Sue Ann, a loner who keeps to herself as a veterinary assistant in her quiet Ohio town. One day, she is asked by Maggie, a new teenager in town (Diana Silvers), to buy some booze for her and her friends. Sue Ann sees the chance to make friends of her own, and offers the kids the chance to avoid drinking and driving by hanging out in the basement of her home. As Ma’s hospitality starts to curdle into pure obsession, she gradually becomes a nightmare that her once trusting teen friends begin to fear.
“Ma” has a lot of potential to be a wonderful horror thriller, but it’s always quite fuzzy on what it wants to say and how it wants to make Ma out to be. Spencer can pull this kind of role off in her sleep, but the writers seem to side more with her character, offering audiences a chance to see some moments in her back story that will leave them very confused on where their allegiances will lie. This is the chance for Spencer to completely over take the audience as this menacing and horrifying villain, but she’s shockingly restrained, especially when the movie stops and suddenly turns her in to the main character.
A lot of “Ma” revolves Diana Silvers’ character Maggie, who is struggling to break free from the clutches of her mother (Juliette Lewis is great here), who is stuck in a life that revolves around light alcoholism and a dead end job. When she meets Sue Ann, she presents something of a distorted mirror image of someone whose life took immense extremes in almost the same kind of pain and transformed her in to the demented character we get to know. We almost get to know Ma a bit too much, as there’s literally no mystique or ambiguity around her motivations. In fact her motivations are a bit too muddy at times. Is she befriending these kids as a weird way of befriending their parents, or is she befriending them to get revenge on their parents for what they did to her?
Did Sue Ann plan to take down the parents the whole time, or was it a spur of the moment break? And Spencer’s commitment to this broken character is so impressive that it literally becomes impossible to root against her, even at her most sadistic. The writers never give us enough reason to jeer Sue Ann, thus “Ma” ends as less of a darkly comic thriller about obsession, and more about the lasting effects of bullying. “Ma” is a solid thriller with some damn good, cringe inducing moments, as well as top notch turns by Lewis, Silver, and Spencer, respectively. I just wish we had a more definitive idea of what kind of character the writers wanted Sue Ann to be.