Review: ‘Ma’ (we were just kids)

An average revenge flick elevated by pedigree.

Following a divorce, Erica (Juliette Lewis) and her sixteen year old daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) move back to the to the small Ohio town Erica grew up in. Looking to fit in as the new kid appearing in the middle of a school year, Maggie falls in with a group of local kids looking to score some booze and unwind a little. Luckily for them, kindly vet assistant Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) happens by and agrees to make their under-aged purchase, later even offering a place to crash safely away from law enforcement. Unluckily for them, Sue Ann — dubbed “Ma” for being a cool adult about the situation — has a history with the teens’ parents, and their secret arrangement brings up not only old feelings but also new opportunities.

On the surface, Ma looks like an average horror movie plopped down in the summer season as counter-programming; why would a studio ever release a film like this in such a crowded marketplace? Then one notices Spencer and Lewis are joined by Allison Janney, Missi Pyle, and Luke Evans. Couple that with two other films Diana Silvers has been in this year (Glass and Booksmart) and one must ask: what’s going on here? In the same way Marvel movies utilize exemplary casting for their superhero roles, can the same level of added professionalism pay off for a hometown bit of overkill payback?

If you pay attention to awards season for films, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer comes up a lot. Often relegated to best-friend and similar supporting roles, her performances often carry serious gravitas: the character everyone underestimates, from Hidden Figures to The Shape of Water. Tate Taylor — who also directed Spencer in The Help — knows what his title character player is capable of and even takes on a bit part himself in addition to directorial duties. While people traditionally make bad decisions in horror films and thrillers, Ma explores the scope of childhood trauma and keeps viewers guessing whether they should root for or fear an antagonist no longer constrained by right or wrong.

Some of the roles are practically throwaways; you can almost hear Wayne Campbell lamenting, “I know it’s a small part, but I think we can do better than this.” This is often a tactic used in kiddie films, stocking the minor adult parts with actors that parents would want to see. Everyone is more than up to the task in this instance; a lot of story is told in a very short time with even a few red herrings that never get fully explained. While being told from Maggie’s point-of-view, some opportunity was missed in not making it even more about Sue Ann; for example, switching the focus to Corey Fogelmanis’s character of Andy would have been more meaningful, but any of the teen POVs would have worked out about the same. If Spencer’s casting was a late addition, there might not have been time to consider a script correction.

Building a sense of dread over secrets and obsessions, Ma works fine as a thriller but barely registers graphically against recent horror films like Brightburn. That said, seeing any character played by Octavia acting fully upon thoughts of revenge rather than just dipping in a toe is worth the price of admission, but let’s be real: Miss Hilly from The Help got off light with only a pie.

Ma is rated R for violent/disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, for teen drug and alcohol use, and a kung-fu grip.

Three skull recommendation out of four

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