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maryann johanson, striking from a hidden base

Ma movie review: revenge is sour

Ma red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A bargain-bin cockadoodie pseudo-Misery, a disgraceful waste of the brilliant Octavia Spencer. Has no interest in women’s pain and trauma even as it appropriates it for entertainment purposes.
I’m “biast” (pro): I am desperate for movies about women…
I’m “biast” (con): …but not so much like this.
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

The cinematic efforts of men — here, director Tate Taylor (The Girl on the Train, Get on Up) and screenwriter Scotty Landes, a TV writer making his feature debut — to delve into the inner lives of women continue to fail abysmally, in particularly horrific manner with Ma, a disgraceful waste of the brilliant Octavia Spencer. She deserves so much better than this bargain-bin cockadoodie shadow of a pseudo-Misery wannabe. I console myself with the fact that she was probably at least paid well.

In a small American town, where everyone knows everybody’s business except when convenient to the plot that they don’t, lonely Sue Ann (Spencer: A Kid Like Jake, Hidden Figures) insinuates herself into the lives of local high-schoolers — centrally, new girl Maggie (Diana Silvers: Booksmart, Glass) — by buying them booze and letting them use her basement as a party den. And then she rapidly turns on these kids in dumb, schlocky ways that anyone who has seen a horror movie before would have clocked the moment she showed them into her serial-killer-lair basement. Except it all enjoys so little psychological rationale on Sue Ann’s part that I guess that’s supposed to make her behavior “surprising” and “suspenseful”?

Ma Octavia Spencer Diana Silvers McKaley Miller

“Did you just call me sassy? Oh, I will show you little white girls what sassy is…”

Not at all unexpected on our part is that these teens are the children of the kids who were awful to Sue Ann in her own high-school days, and so now she will pour her long-festering ire onto the kids because, you know, bitches be crazy, that’s just how it is.

There’s no build-up of tension, no escalation of revenge, just a zero-to-60-in-two-seconds turn to the monstrous for the “cool” adult the kids have taken to calling “Ma.” The torture porn it becomes is horrible, as is the waste of an amazing cast, which also features Luke Evans (Professor Marston & the Wonder Women), Allison Janney (I, Tonya), Juliette Lewis (Jem and the Holograms), and Missi Pyle (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle). But worst of all is the casting of Sue Ann as an psycho bitch whose revenge is mostly misdirected and always wildly out of proportion to the crimes committed against her.

What happened to Sue Ann is definitely awful, and it’s the most plausible thing we see onscreen here: girls are subjected to this shit, and do suffer as a result of it. But instead of honestly confronting how women cope, or don’t, with abuse, bullying, and trauma, Ma ensures that any such coping is drawn as extreme and unreasonable. If boys and men wanted to exonerate themselves for how appallingly they can treat girls and women, that might look like Ma, which not only has no sympathy for Sue Ann, it reduces her to the most cartoonish sort of cheesy villain, and hence renders her pain as eminently dismissable, except for how it can be appropriated for entertainment purposes.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other theatrical releases.



red light 1 star

Ma (2019) | directed by Tate Taylor
US/Can release: May 31 2019
UK/Ire release: May 31 2019

MPAA: rated R for violent/disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, sexual abuse, threat, sex, drug use, very strong language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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