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With: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Tanyell Waivers, Dominic Burgess, Heather Marie Pate, Tate Taylor, Luke Evans, Margaret Fegan, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney
Written by: Scotty Landes
Directed by: Tate Taylor
MPAA Rating: R for violent/disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use
Running Time: 99
Date: 05/31/2019

Ma (2019)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Mother of Hurl

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The psychological horror movie Ma at first seems perfectly serviceable, but underneath, it's a curious combination.

It comes from Blumhouse Productions, the scrappy, edgy company that tends to profit with misfit, low-budget franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge, and Happy Death Day, in addition to the great Get Out.

But it is directed by Tate Taylor, a maker of unremarkable, benign, yet somehow semi-important movies like The Help, Get on Up, and The Girl on the Train.

Taylor is allowed to go nuts with an "R" rating, showing teens drinking and smoking pot and vaping, passing out and not remembering things, disrespecting elders, making out, and swearing like sailors. And, of course, there's a decent amount of blood splashed about.

However, the director approaches these things the same way as a teen downing a shot of Fireball Whisky would. It's as if the makers of Ma were having fun going slumming, giggling and snorting, but with no concept of how a movie could be truly affecting, truly disturbing.

And Octavia Spencer certainly has enough talent to go deep, if anyone cared enough to give her a chance. (Just check Fruitvale Station, Snowpiercer, Hidden Figures, and The Shape of Water for a sampling of her greatness.)

The clockwork-plotted movie actually begins on teen Maggie (Diana Silvers), new in town, where her single mother (Juliette Lewis) has landed a job in a sleazy casino.

Maggie easily falls in with a group of local teens, and even lands a nice boyfriend, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). Andy is usually the designated driver for the teens, who drink frequently to alleviate their small town boredom.

Spencer plays Sue Ann, an assistant to a the local veterinarian (played, briefly, by a humorously grumpy post-I, Tonya Allison Janney). First seen walking a tripod dog, Sue Ann agrees to buy booze for the friends.

The outing that night involves the cops being called, so Sue Ann invites the group back to her place, allowing them to use her basement as a "safe" place to party. But of course, Sue Ann has some secrets, and a little history, and she's teetering on the edge of full psychopath.

The movie illustrates her psychology with a simple flashback, broken up into segments to make it seem like it should be adding up to something more than it actually does.

It's not exactly nothing, but it doesn't seem like enough for the Freddy Krueger nightmare the movie wants her to be. There's no direct trigger from her teenage trauma to the present day.

In one small scene, a telling tidbit of what could have been, a few clueless teens cruelly take advantage of her alcohol-buying abilities and then brush her off. Rejected, she sits in her car and weeps. Whatever it is that has broken her heart here, however, the movie never lets her explore it.

She could have been a pitiable figure, with recognizable hurts, but instead Ma keeps her at arm's length and simply defines her as a repulsive monster.

This flatness of character extends to the rest of the cast, who more or less kill time without much urgency or agency. Silvers, for example, also appears in Olivia Wilde's recent, excellent Booksmart with far more vibrancy in far less screen time.

Lewis, usually a ferocious scene-stealer (even in bad movies), is also weirdly muted here, unable even to make much of her casino-set scenes, decked in her low-cut vest and bow-tie. Indeed, the movie seems to assert that, as soon as the teen-party years are ended, humans become burnt-out husks.

In one scene, Lewis's Erica lounges on the couch, and announces to Maggie that she's binging John Hughes movies ("have you ever seen Pretty in Pink"?).

That's an inadvertent reminder of movie characters that once contained an inner life, a kind of aching, yearning for something, that Ma is simply, blatantly missing.

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