Ma: One Messy Party
Director Tate Taylor, most well known for The Help, takes a stab at the horror genre and brings long-time collaborator and acting powerhouse Octavia Spencer along or the ride in a prominent role — something that shouldn’t be as rare as it actually is. Ma certainly aspires to bring the ruckus to the party, managing to be a pretty good time on that front, but it also winds up too sloppy drunk, completely losing sight of what it’s trying to say.
A lonely woman (Octavia Spencer) befriends a group of teenagers (played by Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, and Dante Brown) and decides to let them party at her house. Just when the kids think their luck couldn't get any better, things start happening that make them question the intention of their host.
Ma is a wild mess of a film whose entertainment value is pretty much single-handedly bolstered by Octavia Spencer’s unhinged performance, which reaches levels of pure Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates from Misery) style insanity. Spencer really elevates Sue Ann/Ma’s character, giving her shades and dimensions that aren’t present on paper, but the film’s many questionable storytelling decisions and poor execution ultimately cut everything off at the knees.
Aside from Octavia Spencer giving it her all with her performance, there’s really only two other things you need to know, which I feel aptly summarize the film and its overall experience:
1) The film’s title is a shortened modernization of the “Mammy” archetype, which is one of cinema’s oldest stereotypes. The term reduced the African American female in film in literature down to a nurturing and submissive black woman who takes care of the children of white families. Aside from Sue Ann’s character fitting that description when she gives the high schoolers a place to party, the film’s title and “Mammy” reference never comes back into play.
2) The film was a result of director and co-writer Tate Taylor’s desire to direct a film about “something fucked up.”
The film intentionally goes out of its way to be shocking and provocative, but it all falls flat because there’s no semblance of significance or substance behind its trite thrills and chills. It’s incredibly unfocused, but it does find entertaining pockets here and there, especially whenever Spencer is on screen. Ma grapples with a lot of heavy ideas with some true potential, but Taylor and co-screenwriter Scotty Landes don’t seem interested in putting their back into it and bearing the weight. The film and those responsible for its creation never aspire to probe any deeper than surface level, only touching on subjects like racism, rape, bullying, and alcoholism with the very tips of its fingers.
In addition to barely touching on hot-button issues, it’s also structurally odd. It loses some impact and scares by not limiting its point of view to solely the group of high school kids as they slowly figure out the kind of situation they’ve found themselves in. Ma splits its screen time between the kids and Sue Ann, as we (the audience) discover the mystery behind her character. Anytime there’s a perspective jump, the film gets a little tonally uneven.
The audience is kept ahead of the characters for certain pieces of information, but is also kept in the dark for other bits of exposition; we get to watch Sue Ann in the film’s present as she plays out her revenge, but we’re also withheld information that gets doled out every so slowly through flashbacks. The flashbacks include a vile act that is crucial to the story and Sue Ann’s development as a character; however the scenes aren’t handled properly, making the rape by deception act not clear enough to properly resonate.
Aside from withholding information and delivering it when it’s convenient, Ma also creates an it’s-a-small-world vibe that it also coheres to only when it wants. The parents of the high school students all went to high school with each other and Sue Ann, yet these characters don’t really seem to be aware of each other’s presence in the town. Characters also make odd choices as the film decides what it wants to be (spoiler alert: it doesn’t really decide). To make matters worse, the film cast the fantastic Allison Janey, who’s been a Tate Taylor regular ever since his short film Chicken Party, and gives her absolutely nothing to do. Her talents are completely underutilized here, which is a cardinal sin in our book.
Overall, Ma is only capable of delivering surface-level thrills. Though it grapples with a lot of meaty subject matter, it never sinks its teeth in, coming across more as shock for shock’s sake than anything remotely substantive. It has potential but drops the ball early on, more content to fall further off the rails (in a bad way) than to ever recover. Octavia Spencer doing the robot did bring great joy to my life though, and her excellent performance is the glue that holds this whole shit show together. For more about the film, you can check out our full convo with our friends Offscreen Babble here.
Recommendation: Octavia Spencer’s performance is enough to make this mess worth a watch, but don’t expect anything more than surface-level exploration. If you can turn your brain off, it’s a pretty fun ride, but the moment you question its logic, everything falls like a house of cards. With that in mind, it’s best to wait until VOD or streaming.
Rating: 2 dance moves outta 5.
What did you think? Did the film work for you? Was Octavia Spencer’s performance enough to salvage this shipwreck? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!