The writers of “Ma” think underage drinking is bad, and they want you to know it. Or at least this is what can be made of the year’s newest horror flick based on simple introspection. Though alcohol is really just a vehicle to deliver teens into indecorous (and sometimes deathly) scenarios, it’s still there at every turn.
Throughout the movie, teens drink incessantly and show off various drug inhalation skills, all while Sue “Ma” Ann (Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”) encourages their habits. Unfortunately, a moldable message on getting sloshed and making really bad (read: stupid) decisions might be all that “Ma” has to offer. Which, given the film’s recent patronage on social media, is quite a letdown.
“Ma” begins unabashedly as a cliché. Maggie (Diana Silvers, “Booksmart”) moves back to her mother’s hometown in the middle of her sophomore year, leaving her without friends in a particularly cruel landscape of teens. The writers of “Ma” waste no time here developing Silvers’s character or examining her struggle. In the first ten minutes of the film, a coterie of teens — led by our secondary interest, Haley (McKaley Miller, “Hart of Dixie”) — approach Maggie, deposit their phone numbers in her cell and invite her to party with them. Suddenly, Maggie has a group of friends.
From the get-go, “Ma” fails to achieve the potential that its creative premise could have accommodated. The first quarter of the film is merely a hurdle to scale before arriving at the movie’s horror elements. Nothing that happens on screen foreshadows what comes later. Unlike recent thriller triumphs like “Hereditary” and “Get Out,” in which music and character tics build tension from the outset, the story here waits to flex its horror muscles. This waiting becomes a routine in the remainder of “Ma.” The writers hopscotch to the action and violence that follows the teens, rather than letting audiences boil in the tension that leads up to it. When the tense moments in “Ma” finally do arrive, they are weaker, rushed and seemingly injudicious.
The horror plot that follows this exposition is simple: Maggie and her (readymade) friend group recruit Ma, a middle-aged alumna of their high school, to purchase them alcohol and let them drink it in her basement. The situation deteriorates, of course, as Ma’s true colors show and she begins stalking the teens, luring them into deranged situations that cannot (will not) end well. Through flashbacks, it is revealed that Ma is hungry for revenge as a result of her own high school traumas. By the time Maggie’s gaggle realizes Ma may not be what she’s made herself out to be, they’re in a perilous situation.
Easiest to compliment is Octavia Spencer’s performance as Ma (or, what little performing the writers of the film let her do). Spencer brings to the screen the off-kilter mannerisms and insane clicks that assists in the creation of the film’s daunting atmosphere. Her flat, sometimes eerily unconvincing deliveries light up “Ma,” even when the camerawork and music refuse to step into place.
The teen characters that trail Ma, while well acted, are for the most part unremarkable and balefully unconvincing. Writers Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and Scotty Landes (“Workaholics”) make it clear that they are above the age of 35 and that they either don’t remember being teenagers, or never were. Weed- and alcohol-obsessed, Maggie and the gang don’t care much about anything else, at least as far as audiences are concerned. Their characters are flat and bare. Ostentatiously, one teen asks Maggie, “What, you don’t vape?” It’s difficult not to laugh.
The pack pounds half-gals like no tomorrow, none of them appear to have parents and they make fun of the town pastor’s daughter. After being invited into Ma’s house for the first time, one of the teens gets in his new, middle-aged acquaintance’s face and chides “What, Ma, don’t you want to be cool?” while trying to convince her to remodel her entire basement for them. Later, another tells Ma she “needs to get a man.” These preposterous kids dissipate any menacing aura that “Ma” manages to construct.
The final quarter of “Ma” is violent and, at last, gasp-worthy. Even so, the movie fails to set as anything beyond a goopy puddle of jump scares. As it turns out, Ma’s actions are the result of cruel maltreatment that occurred in her own high school days. The topic of race makes itself known here, too: The fact that Ma was the only Black student at the school seems to play a role in the mistreatment. Thankfully, the writers acknowledge this toward the end of the film.
These revelatory scenes about Ma’s impetus for present-day violence, however, significantly dull any thrill factor. Horror in film is constructed around the unknown, the unexplainable, the irrational. What makes horror remarkable is often what viewers find absurd or out of reach. When Ma’s insanity and motives are force-fed to audiences through uncalculated flashback, it ruins the fun. Viewers get it, and they get too much of it: Ma’s actions become predictable and digestible. Unlike “Creep” or “The Shining,” where the unstable character’s moves and reasons for insanity are masked, Ma becomes merely (albeit sadly) the common victim of bullying.
In its first trailer, “Ma” made clear that it had all the necessary ingredients to craft a cult horror flick. The cast was there. The plot was fresh and imaginative. The writers just got the wrong recipe. If you’re looking for a real thrill or a disturbance to ponder for the rest of the night, “Ma” isn’t your film.