Ma (starring Octavia Spencer) is a disappointing film. It may be billed as a psychological horror but the movie never manages to unsettle the viewer. It’s not a good sign when a horror thriller isn’t scary or thrilling and that’s the main problem with this film (there are other issues but I’ll get to them in a bit). As the trailer shows, Ma is a middle-aged woman who agrees to buy alcohol for a group of teenagers. She then offers her basement as a place to freely drink and party without authorities bothering them. After a couple of gatherings, Ma then begins to stalk the teenagers (going through their social media and texting them umpteen times a la Greta) and this spirals out of control. I don’t think that I’m giving too much away in saying that Ma has an ulterior motive for luring the teenagers to her house, even the trailer suggests some kind of revenge element to the story.
The film intermittently includes flashbacks of Ma (real name Sue Ann) when she was younger; a shy, timid, and odd-looking girl who was bullied by other kids at her school. The way in which these flashbacks are directed and edited and inserted into the unfolding plot, you expect something much worse to have occurred than what is eventually revealed. The way in which the whispered “close the door” flashback was conveyed, I was expecting there to be something horrific, possibly a racist, gang rape but the sexual assault “trick” that we’re eventually shown doesn’t really warrant murder and torture, especially of unconnected people.
This is the first problem with the film; Sue Ann’s “friends” now have children of their own, but only two of them, the other teenagers have absolutely nothing to do with what happened to Ma as a child so why take it out on them? Why sew-up someone’s mouth when they’ve said nothing offensive and why burn someone’s abdomen when their body did nothing to yours? Once we see what Sue Ann actually went through as a kid, we also realise that parties have no bearing on her past; she wasn’t jilted or rejected from a party when she was young so why even use that as a plot device for revenge?
In a similar way to The Perfection, Hollywood seems to be in a mad rush to release faux, filmic-representations of sexual assault retribution. All these films are skewed in favour of the victim character even though they are detestable people themselves. In Ma, there’s a Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy subplot, meaning that half of the way through the movie, you begin to hate Sue Ann for what she’s doing to a vulnerable child. Alongside a cast of dull teenagers, who are the audience supposed to root for since everybody is either complicit in wrongdoing or is unlikeable or forgettable?
The other problem with Ma is minor but it adds to the overall feeling of this being a slapdash Hollywood production. The basement parties in this movie constantly play music from the 1970s but surely Sue Ann would have grown up in the 1980s? To make this even less believable, the actors who play Ma’s schoolmates are of varying ages. I know “Black Don’t Crack” but people who were born in 1972 wouldn’t be friends with people born in 1979. In addition, some of the actors (Missi Pyle and Juliette Lewis) aren’t particularly believable as “nasty” or “gullible” people, so you don’t want them to be on the receiving end of revenge. The fact that nobody really looks “evil” in Ma shows that the director (Tate Taylor) is unable to coax a believable performance from the cast which includes some talented actors.
Given the small-town location and the black lead, oddly this film (either in the 1980s or in the present-day setting) includes absolutely no racism. Whether it’s the kids in the past or the kids in the present, nobody ever uses any kind of slur, any kind of jibe, in fact they never give Ma even one dirty look. What was done to Sue Ann as a teenager wasn’t bigoted in terms of motivation, it was just some jocks picking on a nerd. Taking that into account, when Ma uses white paint to cover the face of one of the black teenagers, it feels out of place and unneeded. The fact that race or racism is brought up only by the black character, it makes me think that this is a barbed comment. The amount of times you hear white people say “you always make it an issue about colour” or “why do you always pull out the race card?”, so in this film it’s Sue Ann who makes an issue of something when there isn’t. You could say that I’m seeing things that aren’t there but this isn’t the only aspect of Ma that suggests self-induced or self-inflicted prejudice.
With the entire film acting as a metaphor for historical racism, the movie basically suggests that white people from the present day have nothing to do with what their forefathers did. The fact that “Ma” has connotations of “Mammie” or the Mammy stereotype (an older, overweight, black slave who looks after white children) this film is essentially about contemporary Caucasians, from Generation X to the Millennials, feeling hard-done by when people of colour suggest they are either complicit in racism or are benefiting from white privilege. The line “I’m not my mother!” hits the point home that the subtext of this film is white guilt or more accurately, the opinion that white people shouldn’t feel any.
For the sake of argument, if Ma was intended to have absolutely no racial overtones, then it still fails, since as a piece of cinema it doesn’t disturb you, it doesn’t frighten you, and it never makes you jump. Apparently in the original script, Sue Ann was “a complete monster that no audience member could sympathize with” after which the writers created an “authentic backstory”. Unfortunately for everyone involved, this earlier idea was probably better since the end result is now so confused and half-hearted that it’s either one of the worst thrillers around or one of the worst allegories about race in modern times.