The more I thought about it, Ma shares a bit in common with Tate Taylor’s predecessor The Girl on the Train in positive and negative ways. They’re both headlined by impressive female performers – Emily Blunt in Train and Octavia Spencer here. And both are hindered by serious messaging tones in a genre that should celebrate its own trashiness. That problem is less pronounced in Ma, but it rears its head enough to make an impact.
The opening finds high school student Maggie (Diana Silvers, recently seen as an object of Kaitlyn Dever’s affection in Booksmart) transplanted to a sleepy small town. Her single mom (Juliette Lewis) is frequently off working at a casino. There’s nothing much to do except find fields to guzzle beer and smoke weed. Maggie finds some friends, including the dreamy Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) and party monster Haley (McKaley Miller). There’s a couple underwritten others who fit various stereotypes. The group needs town elders to buy them the booze and that’s where Spencer’s Sue Ann comes in.
She’s a veterinary technician who’s quite bad at her job. Her boss is played in a small role by Allison Janney, a staple of Taylor’s filmography. Luckily for the kids, she’s skilled at buying their intoxicants. Sue Ann, deemed Ma by the youngsters, befriends them and allows her basement to be the drinking spot. It doesn’t take long for Maggie and company to realize she’s a little too creepily eager to play a part in their lives.
Ma works best early when the motives of Ma are unclear. Her fascination with Andy, her zeal for bumping 70s funk hits amongst a swarm of underage students, and her endless texts and Insta videos to her new buddies set up an effective and pending sense of doom. Without going into serious spoiler territory, Ma’s bizarre behavior is based in her own upbringing and it’s told in flashback sequences. This is where explanatory content didn’t feel totally necessary. The screenplay by Scotty Landes rather clumsily attempts to insert commentary on bullying and harassment. It’s a delicate balance that never quite levels out.
Spencer is great as always and it is fun (again, especially early) to see her play against type. We also have Luke Evans as Andy’s smarmy father who plays a key role in Sue Ann’s past and Missi Pyle as his tawdry girlfriend. Despite some freaky moments, Ma is a mixed bag as we watch this girl on the crazy train go off the rails.
**1/2 (out of four)