There was plenty of attention paid to a two-letter horror film earlier this year, but Jordan Peele‘s Us, the follow up to his excellent Get Out, felt slickly filmed but ultimately unsatisfying. Perhaps the less hyped Ma, which stars multi-time Academy Award nominee Octavia Spencer, can pick up the slack and deliver the type of chills Us never quite did.
Divorced single mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) and daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) move from San Diego back to Erica’s rural hometown to begin a new life. Starting at a new school, Maggie soon makes a group of new friends that invite her to go drinking with them. Being underage, they need someone to buy alcohol for them, and after several failures Maggie is able to convince Sue Ann (Spencer) to do so.
Shortly thereafter, however, Sue Ann tips off one of the boy’s fathers about the drinking, which brings the cops. She agrees to buy booze again, but this time she has them follow her out to her house where she gives them full access to her basement to drink. She adopts the name of Ma, and overhauls the room, turning it into the hangout for local high schoolers with her now routinely joining the partying, dancing and drinking with kids.
Things don’t stay good for long as Ma starts to act angry when people don’t do what she wants, and it becomes clear that a traumatic event from her own time in school is at least partially fueling her actions as she knows some of the kids’ parents. Eventually she’s confronted by one of the parents, Ben Hawkins (Luke Evans; The Hobbit), who figures out his son has been hanging out at Ma’s house, and it only gets worse from there for all involved.
We’re accustomed to seeing Olivia Spencer in very serious roles, and seeing her here she seems to be having a lot of fun as Ma. She’s delightfully unbalanced, providing some depth to the character with her emotional range and showing someone that’s deeply damaged and ruthless in her pursuit of vengeance. Minus her acting chops, Ma wouldn’t work half as well as it does. To her credit, Spencer manages to ground some pretty absurd elements in reality.
There are other solid performances as well, including Silvers as the “innocent” one in the group that runs afoul of Ma for dating the boy she likes, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). They give you someone to root for as the rest of the group can be a little more unlikable. Things move along at a good pace, too, and the final act is pretty intense.
There are more than a few moments during Ma where you’ll need to turn your brain off so that the plot holes and character inconsistencies don’t consume it. For instance, Ben Hawkins calls the cops on his son when he learns about him drinking at some obscure location. Then, when he discovers that his son has been hanging out with Sue Ann he confronts her but… says nothing to his son. Also, how does Sue Ann keep her job?
After frequently feeling sort of goofy and campy, Ma eventually starts turning the dial up on the violence and bloodshed. There are some legitimately gory scenes in the later stages that feel like they came from a different film. We didn’t mind the action and blood getting ratcheted up, but it could certainly be surprising based on everything you will have seen to that point.
THE BONUS FEATURES
Deleted scenes and an alternate ending are the main extras with a couple of short “making of” featurettes rounding things out. The deleted scenes are solid enough, including an unintentionally funny one where a “hobo” hassles one of the kids until Ma intervenes — the scene is literally called “hobo attack.” The alternate ending is nonsensical, though, and it’s unclear just how much of the movie it reverses. Some of the footage is also incorporated into the finished cut.
Ma doesn’t do anything new or innovative, but it ends up being a fun time thanks in large to Spencer’s performance.