Party’s over

Disappointing ‘horror’ flick falls short of its promise

Starring Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans. Directed by Tate Taylor. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas. Rated R.
Rated 2.0

The first hour of Ma is boring, the last half hour is deranged, and the plot is so overstuffed with storylines your eyes may cross. But you’ve gotta give it to Octavia Spencer in the role of “Ma,” as she likely strained a muscle keeping the film afloat. Also doing their best are the great Juliette Lewis and criminally underused Allison Janney and Missi Pyle in very minor roles. (Did they owe the director a favor?)

The setup is a familiar one—new girl, new school, new podunk town. Maggie (Diana Silvers) and her freshly single mother, Erica (Lewis), have moved back to the small Ohio town her mother grew up in. Fast-forward to Maggie being recruited into the popular clique, which, with five teenagers combined, has the personality of a dust mite. They are obsessed with drinking and being immature, but thoughtful, introspective Maggie cares none since she is lonely and has taken to the one named Andy (Corey Fogelmanis).

Spencer’s Sue Ann (eventually nicknamed Ma) enters the picture when she agrees to buy them booze to drink down at the “rock quarry.” She says she had some good times there, too, when she was in high school, quickly winning their trust. She anonymously calls the cops on the kids, and the next time she buys them booze she invites them to party in her basement—no cops, there’s a bathroom, she even makes snacks! That a group of teenagers would willingly choose to drink in a strange adult’s basement is about as believable as no adult in this small town noticing the cars of local teens parked in front of her house, but never mind.

Sue Ann wears her hair in a bowl cut and dons scrubs most of the time. She is a lonely veterinary assistant who is bad at her job. There are sad flashbacks of her being bullied in high school, which ramp up to a humiliating sexual assault, but at her off-the-hook ragers she finally feels like one of the cool kids. Cue cringingly awkward dance scenes in slow motion to “Funky Town” and Ma stalking the teens on Facebook—the swings in tone and content could cause whiplash. Long story short, past injustices soon come to the surface, the teens get bad vibes and stop coming over, and Ma gets pissed.

There are allusions to Munchausen syndrome and harsh echoes of the scars Ma carries from past abuse. Spencer emotes this pain with real tears, exhibiting shadows of rejection and fleeting moments of hope with a nuance that this movie doesn’t deserve. Leaning into Ma’s psychology and going full-bore serial-killer crazy would have offered a better payoff. Instead, the grand finale upends any semblance of character development as Ma orchestrates a series of punishments upon her enemies that only a bad veterinary assistant could imagine. Is this a horror film? No. But it is probably better than it should be and not nearly as good as it could have been.