A horror entry starring Octavia Spencer didn’t need to offer anything else to get me on board. A master of her craft, we can and will happily watch anything that Spencer does. In MA, Octavia takes on a role we typically don’t see from her – something dark, sinister, and crazed. Despite expectations, however, not even her commitment to her role and a valiant effort from her supporting cast can perk up the uneven plot, thin script, and illogical psychoses peppered throughout this movie.
Blumhouse has a knack for finding interesting film concepts, and I can see why they would have bet on this movie making bank – the concept at hand isn’t at all the problem with this venture. A distressing amount of modern adults can relate to having that one adult friend they had when they were young who turned out to be way weirder than anyone imagined. Friends of mine from different towns, different states, and different backgrounds have all exchanged with me their stories about their one of those: the single adult who got too close to a community of young kids, and it started to get weird. Mine was a local piano teacher in her 50’s when I was 13.
The inherent horror to be had in these kinds of story isn’t hard to imagine, and that’s why it’s kind of confusing to see the choices made in terms of plot, in Ma. We don’t need to know about Ma’s personal tragedies – when we learn about the cruelty and crime that she faced as a child, it doesn’t cause us to feel compassion so much as confusion. The question is never whether or not Ma is a villain or a victim. Tension in the situations throughout the movie is defined by our uncertainty of what Ma is going to do to Maggie and her friends. Trying to define Ma’s various motivations and psychoses only serves to kill suspense.
Perhaps the worse thing is that knowing how young Ma suffered doesn’t encourage us to pity her – at least, not while she makes overt moves to seduce and cruelly harm a lot of children. As a result, the intent of this film is muddy, and starts to do itself a disservice by confusing the audience rather than living up to the campy 80’s-era slasher the first act of the film is reminiscent of. Ma’s story is hampered and needlessly complicated by unimpressive reveals. The sudden inclusion of a secret daughter and a grossly misrepresented Factitious Disorder (a problematic and inaccurate display of both Munchausen’s Syndrome and Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy) is presented as an afterthought to an already difficult-to-swallow set of motivations.
In closing, Ma was disappointing to me because I had hoped for a better avenue to let Octavia shine. She’s a fantastic character actor, and I’m thrilled to see her taking on more complex roles in genres that might surprise us. I hope she continues to experiment, and that the roles she lands give her something better to work with than Ma did. It’s rare that I have to give out content warnings, but some things are just worth warning about, and I feel obligated to let you know that if you would have issues with seeing a close up of Octavia Spencer nearly cutting off a grown man’s soft penis on screen, then this movie is not for you.
In truth, trigger warning-worthy content abounds in Ma. Still, it ultimately lands flat when nothing makes plot-logical sense and the relationships between characters haven’t been developed enough to matter.
Ma is now playing in theaters.