Equal parts hilarious and balls-to-the-wall insane, Ma surprises in the most unimaginable ways. Octavia Spencer raises her crazed stalker to legendary heights, unseen since perhaps Michael Myers in Halloween. What’s more, director Tate Taylor miraculously lets secondary characters shine in a story already tackling multiple thematic fronts.
The driving force of the story hinges on the idea that high school is never over. In other words, the shame, embarrassment, and loneliness felt in one’s formative years don’t just disappear once the graduation cap is thrown into the air. Ma, or Sue Ann, is no different. She was bullied to the point of harassment in high school, which becomes a deadly trigger in her adult life. Spencer expertly juggles the character’s emotional turmoil of reliving past trauma, while also gleefully enjoying herself as the chief villain.
Once Sue Ann meets the children of her former classmates, she enacts revenge. At first, it seems as though she genuinely wants to be friends with these kids, which fuels Ma’s eeriness. She frequently flirts with, casually touches, or outright debases the male teens of the story. Her justification: men are dogs, so I can creep on these kids.
The film makes sweeping overtures toward the intersection of bullying, peer pressure, and generational gaps. Though there is clearly bullying and peer pressure to some degree for Generation Z kids, you wouldn’t really know it from Ma. There’s casual pressure to drink and smoke, but not to be a colossal jerk to your peers because they are different. On the other hand, the teens at the school welcome the new girl, Maggie (Diana Silvers), on her first day. In turn, Maggie is kind to the wheelchair-bound Genie (Tanyell Waivers). The film could be putting a blanket statement on Gen Z kids’ best tendencies, while simultaneously skirting their worst. Be that as it may, the message at the ending of Ma does seem to incite today’s kids to destroy weak, cyclical, and destructive behavior.
Despite the indisputable stalking, abuse, torture, and murder from the main character, the film is almost certainly funnier than it is outright frightening because of its side characters. It is a brilliant move when done right because it relieves the audience’s built-up tension. Yet, most filmmakers don’t utilize secondary characters their full potential – they’re just there to fill in the dialogue and action. But in Ma, they are the showstoppers. The old lady in the nail salon has just one scene, and she brings down the house. Another example is the pastor’s daughter who pretends to be asleep at parties so she won’t drink. The film frequently utilizes her as an incubator for humor in strained or weird situations. All she does is open her eyes, but the masterful construction of her scenes allows for comedic payoffs.
Ma is obstinately unafraid of its own shadow. Even in its most outrageous moments, the film looks us in the eye with a wink or an evil cartoonish eyebrow raise. Either way, it’s a particularly entertaining thriller that transports viewers to an enthralling and disturbed underworld.
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