Ma review: Psychological horror and a cautionary tale

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Ma, the new Octavia Spencer led thriller has some interesting things to say. It’s Spencer’s first starring role and one of the few films in memory where an African American female is the driving force.

Ma has so much promise. At its deepest layer, it’s a story about the lasting and disturbing effects of high school bullying. But sadly, it doesn’t quite live up to its full potential. However, with a shortage of great female horror villains, Octavia shines as a crazy yet sympathetic figure.

This review contains light spoilers.

Trouble Lurking Below the Surface

After a divorce, Erica (Juliette Lewis) and her daughter Maggie leave the West Coast and return to her hometown in Ohio. A small town, like many, where the best thing to do on a Saturday night is drink at a pile of abandoned rocks. And where many of the people from high school still live. One of those past high schoolers is Sue Ann Ellington, now working for the local vet.

Maggie finds friends (and a boyfriend, Andy Hawkins) almost immediately. The five of them (Maggie, Andy, Haley, Chaz and Darrell) loiter at the liquor store looking for someone to buy them alcohol. After several failed attempts they encounter Sue Ann. First she declines, but then agrees to help them. Not only that, she offers her basement as a place to party without fear of being caught.

The chance to drink and throw parties somewhere seems like a dream come true to the high schoolers. So much so that they are apparently willing to overlook some pretty big red flags. Sue Ann, or Ma as they start to call her seems mostly harmless. But there are creepier intentions lurking beneath the surface once she realizes Andy is the son of Ben, the boy she liked in high school.

Ma — Courtesy of Blumhouse Productions

Facebook stalking, jewelry stealing, and other actions teetering on the psychotic begin to unfold. Yet, beneath this is something simpler. Ma is an outsider.

A loner, living in the past, even down to her taste in music. She dreamed of being popular, but was bullied in the most horrific of ways.

The height of this bullying recounted in flashbacks that play out to show who wronged her and how. By befriending the local teens, Sue Ann aims to finally feel like one of the popular kids.

Part of Ma’s motivation is just having company. But after assimilating with the children of her former classmates, revenge is also on her mind. Other sinister things are going on too.

Including a daughter she sometimes sends to school but mostly keeps locked away. There are some serious Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy issues happening. Unfortunately that idea isn’t explored other than to illustrate that Ma is not what she seems.

When Ma’s hospitality turns overbearing, and obsessive, Maggie and her friends begin to distance themselves. The outspoken, sassy Haley even puts out a scathing video (which Ma somehow receives) urging all partying teens to stay away from her. At this point, Sue Ann’s happiness and mind (which was never normal to begin with) begins to fully unravel.