Octavia Spencer keeps this trashy thriller watchable, but Ma is let down by its predictable plot and shallow script
With Ma, director Tate Taylor could have tried to get at the spectre of black motherhood that haunts American cinema, especially American horror, traced from the likes of Chloe, Love is Calling You (1934) to the mystical conjure women in Ghost (1990), Jeepers Creepers (2001) and so on. Everything in Ma lends to this idea, from the title to its relentlessly watchable star, Octavia Spencer. Taylor directed Spencer to her one – rather conventional – Oscar-winning performance, playing a maid in The Help (2011), a film steeped in mammy tropes and iconography.
The film we get instead is weirdly, if unsurprisingly, not interested in any of this and fumbles the few potentially complex themes proposed in its place. Spencer’s Sue Ann is a lonely veterinarian whose obsession with a group of high schoolers yields, at least in the first act, a lot of fun thanks in no small part to the performance of Spencer herself. There’s no material too thin, too thankless that she can’t elevate. Diana Silvers, fresh from a rewarding turn in Booksmart (2019), is perfectly credible, too. But a predictable plot and wobbly writing soon squander the promise of an entertaining premise. Even Spencer’s admirable efforts cannot salvage Scotty Landes’ script, bloated with clumsy pulp devices and deflated by the time its clunky climax arrives.
There’s an argument to be made for the trashiness of Ma. Horror doesn’t always need contemporaneous commentary on its journey to excavate the nature of fear. Curiously, this film is backed by Blumhouse, the studio behind the recent strand of blatantly socially conscious horrors such as The Purge (2013), Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). But Ma wants to have her cake and eat it too. The film toys with very real traumas and avoids every event to engage with them. In the end, what fun there is to be had is shallow.
Released by Universal Pictures