Earlier today, a publicist at United International Pictures Malaysia asked me what I thought of their latest horror film, Ma. I responded with a smile and an “errr…” followed by a “hmm…” Talk about nuanced film criticism; my former journalism lecturer would’ve been proud. You see, Ma is not a good movie at all. But it’s not the kind of bad movie that makes you feel like you’re in a straightjacket, submerged in a large glass tank, with 50-pound weights tied to your ankles. It doesn’t make you check your watch every 30 minutes only to realise that it hasn’t even been ten. It isn’t draggy and lifeless and noisy. In other words, it isn’t The Nun.
No, Ma is a different kind of bad film. The kind where you find yourself smiling and laughing throughout at the sheer absurdity on display. The kind where you wish you weren’t at a movie theatre (a rarity for me) but watching it at home with a bunch of friends, drunk. Take a shot every time a character does something that makes less sense than a homeless dude on crack. Take a shot every time you catch your friend with a WTF look plastered on his/her face. Now, I don’t think that’s director Tate Taylor’s intended response, but it sure as hell was the way everyone in my theatre responded.
To be fair, the story, at its core is pretty damn interesting. A teen and her mom move back to a small town — the kind where everybody knows everybody — where her mom grew up. Despite being the shy new kid in school, Maggie immediately makes friends whose favourite activities include getting drunk, smoking weed and smoking weed while getting drunk. For booze, they usually bum in front of a liquor store and beg adult passersby to buy them some booze.
After a bunch of failed attempts, finally, a middle-aged lady named Sue Ann played by Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer (you read that right) agrees to get them beer but only if they agree to go back to her place to drink. You see, she doesn’t want them getting sh*tfaced in public and driving home drunk. At first, Sue Ann seems like a sweet lady with only a couple of rules: Don’t puke on the floor, don’t say the lord’s name in vain and stay in the basement (upstairs is off-limits).
But you know, there’s more to Sue Ann than meets the eye.
This is a simple but solid idea for a horror film. One that doesn’t involve your run of the mill creepy dolls, possession, contorted bodies and 754 annoying jump scares (there are jumpscares here too, but fleeting). The problem is, writer Scotty Landes doesn’t develop this solid idea into a screenplay with actual depth, unpredictability or three-dimensional characters.
Our protagonists are mostly just single-word adjectives — shy, wild, cute, black, jock. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s a minor gripe. The biggest issue is that a story like this hinges on the audience’s sense of curiosity. We should be watching the film through the slits in between our fingers as the weirdness and mystery slowly unfolds. We need to wonder as our hearts pound like thunder: Why is she doing this?
But here, after a rather entertaining set up, Ma (that’s what the kids call Sue Ann) shows drastic and painfully OBVIOUS signs of being a crazy person. So, it makes absolutely no sense that these teenagers would keep chilling at her place regardless of how much booze there is. When someone points a gun to your head and steals your belongings, you stay far far away from the lunatic. There’s a scene where Ma says she has pancreatic cancer (this is after she’s proven to be a complete loon) and the kids just believe her. “How are they this stupid?” I wondered. Take a shot, I have a WTF look plastered on my face right now.
The script keeps coming up with one inorganic and illogical situation after another to force these kids back into Ma’s basement. Ma doesn’t display a high level of intelligence. She isn’t one step ahead of the kids at every turn. The teens are just that dumb. So much so that this very well could’ve been actual lines in the movie:
Ma: So, I know I stalked your families and sent about 20000 text messages to you guys this morning, but wanna come over to my place and get drunk?
Teens: Heck yeah!!
In fact, Landes has very little idea of how to expand the idea beyond the set up that a large portion of the second act consists of these kids partying at Ma’s basement on various occasions. Three birthday celebrations take place in the basement without any story or character development.
There’s also Ma’s backstory which we flashback to in parts throughout the film. The problem is, we know exactly how everything is going to play out after the first chapter of her sad and cruel backstory. So while Tate Taylor thinks he’s slowly unravelling the mystery and shocking us in the process, we’ve actually figured everything out ages ago.
But it’s this sheer nonsense that makes the whole thing a rather entertaining watch. Well, all of that and Octavia Spencer. It seems like Octavia Spencer (who’s good friends with the director), took one whiff of the screenplay, recognised its stink and knew exactly what to do. Spencer dials everything up to
eleven a thousand, from the way she delivers her lines to the way she simply stares at someone. All of it is over the top.
Gone are the controlled performances we saw in Shape of Water and The Help, and in comes the Octavia Spencer who’s simply having a blast on set. Unfortunately, she’s the only one who realises that they’re making Chinese Feng Tao music, everyone else seems to believe they’re playing Jazz at Preservation Hall.
Had everyone been on the same wavelength as the genius that is Octavia Spencer, this could’ve been a genuinely fun movie. Why doesn’t the jock remove his t-shirt in slow motion? Why doesn’t the hot girl walk down her highschool staircase with the wind blowing through her hair, also in slow-motion of course? Why don’t the kids band together like a makeshift Famous Five and solve a larger than life mystery better than every single adult in town?
The final moments of the film are jarring in terms of how suddenly gory they are. Ma goes from being a mystery-thriller to exploitative cinema. But again, they don’t incite an appropriate reaction. I watched the film with a packed theatre who gasped loudly and immediately broke into laughter when a young girl’s mouth was getting sewn shut. Take another shot.