Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Maggie (Diana Silvers) has just moved and is looking for new friends. She starts hanging out with a group and gets peer-pressured into asking an adult to buy them alcohol. It’s here where she encounters Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), who graciously buys the booze and offers up her basement for the teenagers to party in. The group is overjoyed, but as their friendship with Sue Ann grows, they quickly notice that Sue Ann’s intentions may not be friendly.
The set-up for Ma may sound sinister, but the execution is a bit of a chaotic mess. For the Film’s first two-thirds, it is never sure of what tone or storyline to focus on. The teenagers initially seem like the main characters, but then the Film pivots into focusing on Sue Ann, her motivations and her past – which relates to some of the teenagers’ parents. And then it proceeds to bring some of their parents into the mix. If all of that sounds incredibly bizarre to read, seeing it unfold on-screen is even worse. As Ma jumps recklessly between characters, vaguely set-up storylines and pivotal scenes with missing information, it peppers in some odd jump scares and a general sense of unease. But not a lot happens, even when the Film begins to really pull back the layers of what’s really going on with Sue Ann. It just sort of exists as an edgier clone of any number of teenage TV Dramas.
But once the Third Act begins, Ma literally goes into overdrive and becomes an entirely different beast. Gone is any sense of unease and confusion, and in its place is an unsettling and relentless nightmare that does not let-up until the credits roll. I will not even pretend to understand why it takes this long for the Film to go completely off the rails, but I was on board for every single moment of it. I laughed and I grimaced multiple times, as did everyone around me. Even as I write this, I am aghast at some of the completely ‘bonkers’ things this Cast of characters do and have done to them. Some of these moments are campy no doubt and others are downright baffling. But all of these moments together never fail to entertain and catch you off-guard (or leave you with pages of questions and curiosities that go unanswered). And if this entire section of Ma is so sharp, then why does the rest of the Film have no idea what it wants to be?
While Silvers does mostly well for herself alongside the likes of Luke Evans, Juliette Lewis and bit player Allison Janney, nearly everyone else suffers under the Film’s messy narrative confines. Everyone that is, except for Spencer. The Oscar-winning Actress is playing for keeps from the start, jumping headfirst into each and every absurd moment with a manic energy that cannot be equaled. Sue Ann longs to be the life of the party, and watching Spencer’s wild gamut of emotions is worth the ticket price all on its own. The way she alternates between being creepy and sympathetic is exactly why she is one of Hollywood’s most reliable working actors.
Ma is outrageous and genuinely-insane, but only in its Third Act. The rest is a mess of a movie that suffers from multiple identity crises. Thankfully, Spencer rises above all that, putting in one of the zaniest performances of the year. Watch if you dare.
Universal Pictures Canada release MA on Friday, May 31, 2019.