Friday, May 31, 2019

'Ma' Ma Mia!

Ma loves you. A LOT.

Classic slasher movies tend to follow familiar formulas: teenagers getting knocked off by a mysterious stranger who is eventually revealed to be someone with some kind of grudge, usually having to do with neglectful or mean teenagers in their past. Ma follows a bit in that vein, but omits some of the mystery. There's no doubt Ma is nuts, and doesn't have her teenage posse's best interests at heart. But the why is revealed slowly, as is the extent of her insanity.

Set in an unnamed southern town (though filmed in Natchez, MS), the film establishes our Final Girl immediately. Maggie (Diana Silvers, recently seen in Booksmart), and her single mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) have recently moved to town, but it doesn't take long for Maggie to make friends with the cool kids: party girl Haley (McKaley Miller) and a trio of boys, including insta-boyfriend Andy (Corey Fogelmanis).

The group's go-to fun time is drinking at the Rock Pile, which is, literally, a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere. Getting booze for these jaunts requires hanging outside a liquor store and begging an adult to buy up for them.

Enter Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). At first adamantly against it, she eventually gives in, for reasons that are very obviously ulterior, especially after she makes sure the kids get caught that evening. When she conveniently runs into them again, she tells them they can drink in her basement. After all, it's better than them driving around drunk, right?

She quickly earns the nickname "Ma," and before her complimentary Pizza Rolls are even finished, her basement is the new hot ticket, although there are rules: there has to be a designated driver, and no one is allowed to go upstairs.

While partying in a middle-aged stranger's basement doesn't seem particularly odd to the teens at first (because, one, drunk, and two, dumb teenagers in a horror movie), when Ma starts to send them incessant texts and video messages, practically begging them to keep showing up, they get wise, and spread the word that Ma is a little weird, and they should probably stay away from her party den.

Which gets back to Ma....

At first, we just assume Sue Ann is a lonely woman who gloms onto the kids out of a combination of concern and lonely desperation. But flashbacks reveal Sue Ann has a history at their high school, and with some of their parents. But the pace at which those flashbacks are scattered throughout the film is off, both slowing things down, and remaining annoyingly enigmatic for the majority. We know something bad happened to her, but when they finally get to it, the event loses much of its impact.

Pacing in general is a big problem, as there's nothing gradual about Ma's turn from creepy to completely psychotic. In fact, her break is so sudden it ends up being one of the film's biggest laughs, which the movie could use more of. And indeed, there are clues that this is all being played for camp, the biggest being the presence of Allison Janney as Sue Ann's veterinarian boss, who spends all of her extremely brief screen time glaring or yelling at Sue Ann ("Sue Ann! Why isn't that dog shaved?!"). But Ma never truly commits to the camp.

(I'll also add that the fact that Ma works with animals had me tense throughout the whole thing, fearing she was going to murder everyone's pets. Happy to spoil it for the similarly nervous and say no dog dies, though one does get hurt.)

Director Tate Taylor worked with Octavia Spencer previously on the film The Help, which was firmly set in the south, and dealt with historical race relations. Ma is also centered on a black woman in the south, and yet race plays almost no part in the story. The flashbacks reveal she was the only black girl within her social group, and everyone she deals with as an adult is white. (Aside from one of the partying teenagers, and at least that doesn't go unnoticed or without comment)

By ignoring the topic, the film falls into the camp of unsurprising crazy killer stories, offering no real nuance, commentary, or subversion to the genre. It had me imaging what someone like Jordan Peele could have done with the same story. Perhaps he could have given us a film actually worthy of the all-in performance from Octavia Spencer.

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