Ma (Tate Taylor, 2019) ½ out of 4 stars.
A film as nonsensical as it is terrible, Tate Taylor’s Ma commits numerous cinematic crimes, among them the absolutely indefensible one of wasting the talent of the great Octavia Spencer. Featuring laughably portentous close-ups of the actress’s face, telegraphing already obvious emotions as her expression shifts from sunny to stormy, Taylor makes every mistake in the movie playbook that would earn even a beginning film student an F. Then again, based on the idiocy of the screenplay, Ma was a misfire from birth, what passes for story all a jumble of competing ideas that never gel. Worse, the central messaging about the lasting effects of bullying ends up condemning the victim as much as the perpetrator, implying that nerdy loners have a potential homicidal maniac lurking within. Finally, its grotesque inserts of gore are the repulsive topper: if you survive to the last act, the director makes sure to reward you with the heaves. Was there a recent Ed Wood contest that I missed? Taylor (The Help) would surely win the prize.
Spencer (Hidden Figures) plays Sue Ann, a fortysomething vet tech still living in the town in which she grew up, somewhere in the middle of what appears to be rural America. When a group of teens one day asks her for assistance in purchasing liquor, she complies, but then develops an unhealthy obsession with becoming the life of their party. Why? Well, in flashbacks we learn about her unhappy past with the parents of some of these kids, portrayed as adults by Juliette Lewis (Hellion), Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train) and Missi Pyle (Director’s Cut). What they did to her was indefensible, for sure, and they are not – with the exception of Lewis’s Erica – particularly nice people even now, but the murderous rage that explodes out of Sue Ann seems forced, a product more of script conceit than human motivation. Throw in a sudden backstory of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy out of seeming nowhere – why not? – and the plot devolves even more.
The young actors in the movie are an uneven bunch, though Diana Silvers (Booksmart), as Erica’s daughter, Maggie, is a definite standout. That’s a dubious honor, though, unless Ma one day achieves cult status in the same way that Mr. Wood’s films have. Overall, this project amazes by ineptitude, squandering its few decent moments in a wash of terrible pop psychology sprinkled with the splatter of horror to (hopefully) bring out genre aficionados. Here’s hoping Ma dies a box-office death as gruesome as that it metes out to its victims, lest we end up with a sequel. After all, there remain orphaned progeny, so this blood feud could go on. Grandma will be next.