Ma is the latest film from director Tate Taylor (The Help). It tells the story of a group of teenagers who begin hanging out and drinking at the house of a kindly middle-aged woman (Octavia Spencer), whose true motive for helping the group may not be as noble as keeping the teens from drinking and driving. That’s a fairly thin premise, but one ripe with possibilities to build an interesting story if enough attention is paid to developing characters and providing social commentary. Sadly, very little thought goes into either. The script written by Taylor and Scotty Landes, is full of pacing issues, plot holes and unintended red herrings. The final product is a mess. This is like a first draft that someone decided to film. The only thing that makes it somewhat watchable is Spencer. She is clearly game and immerses herself into this role the way we’ve come to expect of her. It’s a pretty good performance in a film that disappoints in nearly every other aspect. If you wish to avoid spoilers, stop reading, because we’re going to provide specifics as to why this film just doesn’t work.
One issue that arose early on is I just didn’t believe the teen characters. I know that films like this rely on a certain degree of stupidity on the part of teenagers. Innocence of youth is pivotal in horror films. It’s what the survivors of whatever gruesome tragedy is about to befall will lose. The tropes of this genre rely on the characters being naive. In some of Spencer’s early scenes, there is some foreshadowing of the later atrocities she will commit. Most of these work and are subtle enough that I could get on board with the teens not being bothered by them. However, at one point, when everyone is in her basement, her character pulls a gun on Chaz (Gianni Paolo) and demands that he strip. Everyone is horrified at that moment, but after he does strip completely naked, Ma begins laughing and tells everyone she was joking. Everyone laughs it off and just continues partying. I didn’t buy it. There would be at least one teenager in that group, in this #MeToo age, that would have rightfully been disgusted at what just happened and walked out, or at least decided to never go into that house after that night. It’s such an extreme act on Ma’s part, and yet the teens aren’t as troubled by it as they are with much more subtle acts later on.
The script is also full of random clues that lead nowhere. It’s one thing to try to mislead the audience, but there has to be a payoff for being misled. Instead, Taylor and Landes bring up and emphasize little details about Ma’s life that you think will reveal more about her character, but never do. An example of this is the wedding ring she wears. She briefly mentions her husband and states that he’s no longer in the picture, but she keeps wearing the ring because her hands are too swollen to remove it. There is no mention of her husband ever again.
The script is also mixed up about whether it wants to be about bullying or racism. To be clear, both can be related and the film could easily examine both. What it actually does is half-ass the bullying theme and use racism for several throwaway moments. It feels cheap. It’s particularly disappointing coming from Blumhouse, the production company behind Get Out and Us.
The flashbacks to Ma’s teen years are poorly devised. These scenes needed to justify the violent way she erupts in the film’s final act. Instead, they paint a rather murky picture of why she holds grudges against so many of the parents of the teens she parties with. Her issue with Ben Hawkins (Luke Evans/Andrew Matthew Welch) is understandable. Having his classmates wait outside a closet to laugh and shame a teenage girl for performing oral sex is despicable. It’s less clear, however, why Ma has so much hatred for Mercedes (Missi Pyle/Nicole Carpenter) and Erica (Juliette Lewis/Skyler Joy). Yes, there were among the classmates that laughed at her during the aforementioned incident, but it feels like there should be more to the story considering how intensely Ma plots against them.
In all, this was an experience I will gladly avoid in the future. It’s a truly icky film that doesn’t earn it’s most squirm inducing moments. Its point is muddled at best, and I left the theater convinced that Spencer needs to stop working with Taylor. It’s amazing how he has become even less skilled at handling race in his films in the eight years since The Help was released.
I am not going to lie; I was intrigued by the concept the first time I saw the trailer. It looked like a fresh concept and it was a female-centric suspense film. How could you not at least be curious? Before I tear this film apart, let me start by saying that, on its face, it is a watchable film. In the moment, it was enjoyable enough. There were some pacing issues, but once things started happening it was fine. The problem comes when you walk out of the theater and really think about what you just sat through. When you start putting the pieces together, you realize there are some major plot and character development issues.
Let’s start with the plot. There is one scene in particular that has really been gnawing at me. Nathan and I have discussed it at length, and the more we talk and the more I think, the more uncomfortable this scene makes me. Now, this isn’t to say that discomfort is bad. Discomfort in film can serve to develop the plot or characters. However, this scene made me feel discomfort in the way that I needed a shower afterwards. When the kids, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), Maggie (Diana Silvers), Haley (McKaley Miller), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and Darrell (Dante Brown), go to Ma’s (Octavia Spencer) basement for the first time, Chaz challenges Ma’s authority. The problem comes with Ma’s reaction. She pulls a gun on Chaz and forces him to strip naked in front of his friends. Once he is completely nude, she starts to laugh and explains that the gun doesn’t even work. Besides the obvious statutory rape adjacent story line here, this scene felt so out of place. Yes, it was Ma’s way of establishing dominance. However, there were approximately a million other ways that could have been done. The biggest problem though was the fact that none of the teens mention this moment later on. None of them found it weird, uncomfortable, or inappropriate. Instead, they all just keep going to Ma’s to hang out. It is a scene that happens, does not relate to anything else that happens in the film and, overall, is just inappropriate.
Another really big plot problem comes with a series of flashbacks. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, at its heart, this is a story of revenge. Ma went to high school with the parents of the teenagers that she takes under her wing. These parents treated her terribly in high school. There is one particular incident shown through a series of flashbacks where you find out she was lured to a janitor’s closet under the pretense of being with one boy. However, in the dark, she doesn’t realize that it’s a different boy in the closet. She emerges from the closet and finds a group of teens (led by the parents of the teenagers she develops a relationship with) ready to laugh at her humiliation. The flashbacks shown first do not even relate to the actual incident. They really don’t establish any sort of necessity in the over all story that is being told. Honestly, it seemed like bad B-roll. Once you finally do learn what happened, it is at a point in the plot that it doesn’t matter anymore. It has already been established that these kids were terrible to her. The actual event happening only serves as shock value. Now, had they made the reveal sooner, I think it would have been far more effective. It just came too late to actually have an impact.
There are plenty of other plot points that are problematic, but in comparison to what I have already wrote about they are small. That doesn’t make them any less annoying as I continue to think about them. I think at this point there are some glaring character development and relationship issues that also need to be addressed.
First, to its credit, this film goes against cliche in terms of which characters they killed off. Let me assure you, the one black teen in the group does survive the film. However, the racial dynamics were handled poorly. There are a few lines referring to his race that are cringeworthy. There is also one particular scene at the end of the film where Ma is essentially punishing each of the teens for what she considers to be their flaws. Everything seems pretty typical until she gets to Darrell. She paints his face white and says something along the lines of there can only be one of us in the group. It’s like this film is trying to provide commentary on race but is going about it in all of the wrong ways. It’s a random moment that wasn’t earned. It just happens and you’re like, okay, I guess there was a point to that. The dynamics leading up to that point just didn’t provide it with any impact.
Another big issue with the characters is the relationship development, or lack thereof, that takes place. As I explained before, Ma’s issue is really with the parents of these teens. The grudge she holds against Ben Hawkins (Luke Evans) is the only one that seems justified. She also holds grudges against Mercedes (Missi Pyle) and Erica (Juliette Lewis) but it is never explained why. One is left to assume that they were classmates, but it is a relationship that is never fully explained. The grudge she holds against them and the way she gets her revenge seems unnecessary because of the lack of development.
There were also several characters that just did not serve a purpose. At one point, you find out that Ma actually has a daughter that she keeps locked away in the house. Maggie actually knows this girl from earlier in the film. However, you go so long without seeing her on screen that it takes a bit for you to make the connection. The bigger problem though is that this character could literally be taken out of the film and it would not make a difference. Don’t get me wrong, Tanyell Waivers performance as Genie was great. But her existence is nothing more than a plot device to get Maggie and Haley to explore the forbidden main floors of Ma’s house. You never find out why Ma has sequestered her to the second floor of the house or why she has stopped allowing Genie to go to school. You are left only to assume Ma doesn’t want her interacting with boys or being teased. This is a character that could have done this film some good and she was largely ignored.
Ok, this leads me to the last of my major issues with this film, and that is the development of Ma as a character. Octavia Spencer played this role really well. You could definitely tell that this was a role she was invested in. However, her performance was still not enough to save this character. There were several moments that served to further develop her character that were then dropped. . Or the moment, where she lies and tells the teens that she has been diagnosed with cancer in order to gain sympathy. This was out of character for the person that they established Ma to be. There were several moments like this throughout the film that you thought might lead somewhere interesting but then were just dropped. Ma could have been a really interesting character but she was sloppily written and directed.
Like I said in the beginning, this film was watchable, but I would not use any other positive adjective to describe it. The plot holes and character development issues really kept it from becoming what it should have been: a fun way to spend a summer afternoon. Instead, it was a tedious and frustrating experience.