In 2017, Blumhouse Productions changed the contemporary horror industry with the release and success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The impact was immediate: Producers realized that audiences were desperate for films that utilized the conventions of horror films to explore pervasive racism in America, and a new wave of modest studio horror went into production. This success helped set the stage for Ma, a film that looks to Hollywood’s past to capitalize on cinema’s present.
After her parents’ messy separation, Maggie (Booksmart's Silvers) moves back to her mother’s (Lewis) hometown to finish out high school. There she falls in with a group of friends who spend their weekends following a small-town tradition: driving around aimlessly and begging strangers to buy them beer. Finally, one does. Sue Ann (Spencer) quickly becomes a legend to local high schoolers – they christen her "Ma" – after she agrees to host their parties in her basement. Soon, however, the teenagers discover a darker and more obsessive side to their gracious host and learn that there’s more to Sue Ann’s history in this town than initially meets the eye.
On paper, Ma is meant to be a takedown of the pervasive racist "mammy" caricature in historical fiction. The identifying traits of that archetype – subservient, sexless, and apathetic toward the needs of their own families – are directly contrasted in Sue Ann, who feeds on her teenage trauma to facilitate her own agenda. It’s a tricky line for the film to walk. There are times when Spencer’s character feels less subversive and more like a gonzo Annie Wilkes from Misery; it’s clear that the filmmakers understand how to write Sue Ann in opposition to tropes, less clear that they know how to turn that into something meaningful.
This is where Spencer comes in. There’s never really any question as to where Ma is headed – hometown reunions often provide the lifeblood of the horror genre – but Spencer pulls us through the necessary twists and turns through sheer force of will. Sue Ann is genuinely likable for much of the movie, and her moments of quiet reflection peppered throughout the film are almost enough to bring us over to her side – even when she pivots into her murderous rampage. Spencer is an undeniably warm screen presence, and her role in Ma seems positioned as an insult to her filmography as well, showing that she’s a more versatile performer than her roles in movies like The Help and The Shape of Water would have us believe. The cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between Sue Ann and Maggie may be nothing earth-shattering, but it’s also undeniably pulpy and plenty of fun for the B-movie crowd.
Much like Netflix’s recent release of The Perfection, Ma exists somewhere at the intersection of Lifetime Movie of the Week and revenge cinema. See this one with a crowd, and it will undoubtedly be one of the more memorable horror films of 2019. Just don’t pretend like Ma is quite as smart as it would like to be.
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