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Horror is having a pop culture moment where it is being accepted like never before as the wonderful art form that it is. Sure, the reality is that incredible quality has always existed in the genre, and all that’s really changed is mass perception, but it’s still amazing to see audiences understand its legitimacy and the power of the storytelling. Not only is it allowing the spotlight to shine on projects that otherwise might be ignored, but people are opening their eyes to the depths present in the themes and the potential emotional weight of the work.
Of course, not every horror movie has to be welcomed as a form of “high art,” and just as valid as ever are the examples of the genre that are wildly free to be as pulpy, raw, and fun as they can be. It’s in this particular realm that Tate Taylor’s Ma exists, and it’s in the way the film revels within its categorization that it succeeds. While still making you care about its characters – including, surprisingly, its titular antagonist – it’s a flick that works because of its wonderful self-awareness and crowd-pleasing weirdness, ultimately making it simply a very entertaining big screen ride.
Based on an original screenplay by Scotty Landes, Ma begins centered on Maggie (Diana Silvers) – a teenager who moves with her mother (Juliette Lewis) from San Diego to the small, suburban town where her mother grew up. Rather than being a new kid outcast, she winds up making friends (McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, and Dante Brown) fast, and also has a lot of time to spend with them because of her mom’s busy work schedule at a local casino. Because kids will be kids, this includes a good bit of partying and underage drinking – but those kinds of adventures, of course, come with the challenge of finding an adult who will buy them alcohol.
This primarily involves hanging around outside the liquor store and just hoping to encounter a friendly grown-up – a process that includes a lot of rejection and patience – but that’s when they meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). At first it seems like they’ve hit the teenage jackpot, as she is not only willing to buy them booze, but also offers up the basement of her house as a spot open to parties and all kinds of crazy shenanigans. It’s a lot of fun, and Maggie has the chance to grow closer with her new friends, but things start to take a sinister turn as Sue Ann becomes more clingy, controlling, and obsessive. The reality is that the woman casually known as “Ma” has a special connection to these kids, and things get dangerous as they start to understand her true intentions.
Ma is a movie that completely lacks any kind of pretension or self-seriousness, and instead puts them both aside in favor of gonzo weirdness and an engaging tone. Rather than focusing on tension or terror, it’s a film for fans that get that special joy that comes from seeing things go totally sideways in horrific fashion, and while it’s not exactly a “horror comedy,” it is built to purposefully make you laugh just as much as it makes you yelp (courteous of a handful of knowing jump scares). While there certainly is a degree of escalation in the plot, things get ridiculous super fast as it quickly lays out all its cards following Sue Ann’s introduction, but it’s all table setting for wonderful “what the fuck” moments and some surprisingly novel and vicious ideas.
At the same time, though, what’s weirdly engaging about the film is the way in which it also makes you care about the characters – and shockingly enough that’s especially true when it comes to Sue Ann. The smartest move that Ma makes is the way in which it layers in its eponymous villain’s backstory, which makes her a far more sympathetic figure than you’d ever expect walking into the movie with an impression based on the trailers. While details are kept mysterious to the group of teens, moviegoers get to legitimately understand where Sue Ann is coming from, and it adds levels to the storytelling in unexpected ways – backed by the charm and charisma of Octavia Spencer, who is clearly having a ball. At the end of the day there definitely is no way to fully legitimize the actions that she takes, but there is also much more to it than her simply being lonely and crazy.
Without proper preparation (which hopefully you now have thanks to this review), it takes a second to adjust to what Ma is trying to do, but once you understand it becomes a movie that’s very easy to fall into. It’s an entertaining, yell-at-the-screen/see-it-with-a-crowd cinematic experience that doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, and audiences are going to have a lot of fun.