You ever just wake up one day and realize that you’re like, old? I feel that way whenever I go to the movie theatre.
When I was in high school, going to the movies was the thing to do. It didn’t really matter what the movie was because it was just thrilling enough to be somewhere with a bunch of friends and no parental supervision. Nowadays, I would rather be anywhere else than a packed Cineplex, so even before I went into the screening of Tate Taylor’s Ma (2019), I had a lot to unpack, mentally and emotionally. But I walked out of the theatre feeling like a teen for a very brief second—until I realized that I sided more than the adults in the film than the teens and that, really, makes me a little scared.
The film is another addition to Blumhouse Productions’ filmography and in that respect, the film already feels vaguely familiar. Blumhouse films are starting to have the same tone and feel in story, pacing, and production design. I’m not going to make a judgement call either way—the more horror movies the better IMHO—but Ma’s flaws really stem from the feeling that you’ve kind of already seen this all before.
You already know that Ma AKA Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) is up to no good when she helps a gaggle of teens score alcohol and invites them to her house to party. The tone is fun and frothy like ‘80s slashers, very much in the same vein as Happy Death Day (2017), and, again, it makes Ma feel like another cog in a machine. But the R-rating allows for some grimy moments and the surprisingly relevant script and fantastic performance by Octavia Spencer helps ground the film. Spencer saves and elevates this movie. She gives such a layered performance and brings a lot of dignity and humour to the role, creating a compelling and creepy villain that deserves her own franchise. Seriously, we can call the next one Ma 2: Mommy’s Home (call me, Blumhouse, I’ll write the script!).
The premise is pretty straightforward: Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) and her mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) have moved back to Erica’s small hometown after not “making it” in California. While Erica transitions into her new job, Maggie is left to her own devices as she tries to navigate her new environment. Of course, she does what all teenagers do and swiftly accepts an invitation to hang out with a group of cool kids. As an initiation to the group, they pressure Maggie to hang out outside a convenience store and get an adult to buy them booze so they can party (ah, youth). That’s how they all meet Sue Ann, a veterinary assistant who’s all too eager to help the teens get the alcohol they so desperately need.
Eventually, Sue Ann starts inviting the kids to her place to party and she becomes the ultimate Cool Mom. Not only does she dance with them to get the party started, she even makes sure they have snacks and Jell-O shooters on hand as they rage on in the basement of her farmhouse at the edge of town.
Of course, as any adult who parties with teenagers does, she starts to toe the line with the teens, flirting with the boys and pressuring kids to keep drinking when they don’t want to. As a certifiable Old Person, I found myself screaming internally for these kids to just tell their fucking parents what was going on, but of course that doesn’t happen because this is a horror movie.
I’m not writing that to be sarcastic. At their best, horror movies can act as a release for current social and cultural fears and there are a few that Ma touches on. The kids don’t tell their parents what’s going on because no one is actually around for them to talk to. Erica is trying to make it work as a cocktail waitress at a depressing casino and every other parent is too consumed with their own lives to pay attention to their children.
The film also hints at some really honest truths about peer pressure, the overwhelming desire to conform just to have friends, the horrors of high school and the long-lasting effects of trauma. When Sue Ann’s past is revealed, it is truly horrific and Spencer plays the part with a mixture of sadness, loneliness, grief, fear, and rage that shows how trauma victims can also become perpetrators of the same violence that was inflicted on them.
Still, it’s not a perfect film and while I found it entertaining, the script doesn’t really dig in as deep as it could to make it something more. And when I really think about it, the premise doesn’t ring true. When I think back on my underage drinking years (this is not an endorsement), I never hung outside an LCBO to see if someone would buy me alcohol. I don’t think I know anyone who did. It was always someone’s older sibling, cousin, boyfriend, classmate—just someone knew someone who was over 19 and willing to get us booze.
Also, we never had to exclusively drink and get high outside—there was always someone’s basement whose parents were either chill or out of town where we could go party at the last minute. But maybe that’s just my sheltered suburban life.
The film feels like it’s trying to be Scream (1996) or even Urban Legend (1998) for Generation Z, where instead of a classmate being the killer, it’s one of parents—someone that’s supposed to take care of kids and make sure they don’t get hurt. If we want to get really deep about it, I’d argue that Ma shows how sexual assault from past eras creates a culture where escalating sexual violence is inflicted on younger generations with graver results.
It’s not perfect, but thanks to really solid performances from the adults in the room—especially Octavia Spencer but was there ever any question that she would turn it out?—Ma scratches the surface of something deeper.