MA feels like it is happening anywhere and everywhere. Every town has that place. You know the one. Where the cool kids go and party relatively without consequences. Usually outside on some abandoned or barely settled part of town, it sits. It never felt glamorous, but it got the job done.
Often, there was also that one house. The overly permissive or never present parents. The parties there were crazier, the alcohol better and more prevalent. It also felt a bit creepier, though. Like adults should not be quite so okay with kids breaking rules.
MA takes the feeling of the latter, both the lure of the easy party and the vaguely hinky sensation and blows it up to, well, mind-boggling proportions.
The Idea Behind MA
Maggie (Diana Silvers) has moved to her mom Erica’s (Juliette Lewis) hometown seven months into the school year. Erica left the smallish, dusty town in the rearview years ago but after the dissolution of her marriage, she has been forced back to where she grew up. Despite the timing and the tragic nature of the return, though, Maggie quickly finds her groove.
Approached by Haley (McKaley Miller), a new student from the year before, Maggie gets a party invitation after just a few hours at her new school. In tow are Haley’s boyfriend Chaz (Gianni Paolo), Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), who so obviously is crushing on Maggie from the jump, and Darrell (Dante Brown), one of the few students of color in this predominantly white town.
Maggie making instant friends is one of the least improbable things that happens, just to give you a heads up.
While begging adults to buy them booze, the group encounters Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). She eventually agrees, albeit with lots of caveats and warnings. Soon, though, Ma — as she asks to be called — has declared her basement the official party zone of the local high school. It turns out that Ma herself is an alum, a classmate of Erica’s no less, who experienced some cruelty and trauma during her time at the hands of the popular kids, including still-locals Ben (Luke Evans) — Andy’s dad — and Mercedes (Missi Pyle), the former head cheerleader and Ben’s new orally enthusiastic flame.
Is Ma chasing her youth to make up for lost time or something more sinister?
Screenwriter Scotty Landes predominantly comes from television comedy writing. He seems to have well applied comedic writing rhythms to the creep factor of MA. The script has the same kind of sense of building to a punchline. Additionally, it gets how repetition can bring about diminishing returns, but if you push it just a step farther it becomes funnier. Or in the case, even more disturbing.
There is also a delightful specificity to the script. For instance, one character pretends to sleep through every party so she can attend but not worry about peer pressure or getting in trouble. It is odd but just the right kind of odd. The exact sort of “logic” a teen might use to justify their choices.
The intermittent flashback structure ends up paying dividends but it takes a bit for it to feel useful. Its slow unveiling of the nastiness and lack of empathy of teens proves just the right amount of stomach-churning, even if placing one of the flashbacks out of sequence with the rest nearly undercuts the darkest moment.
While perhaps by accident, the script also creates an interesting commentary on today vs. the past as Maggie’s inclusion in the community is contrasted against Ma’s exclusion in her teen years. Unlike most parables of the Millennial/Generation Z set, this one picks up on how different social strata and bullying are today versus during the late ’80s/early ’90s.
Casting the Leads of MA
I am starting to feel like a broken record here, but you need to know. Diana Silvers is really good. She has been really good in the past six months alone as a strong supporting character in BOOKSMART, a good lead in the otherwise underwhelming INTO THE DARK: FLESH & BLOOD, and even as the barely there but obviously very scared cheerleader in GLASS. Now, in MA, she is once again excellent in perhaps her most well-rounded and realized role yet. Oh, and by the way, all the movies I listed off? That’s all the acting she has ever done, sans a yet-released movie called EVE, also due this year and helmed by director Tate Taylor. So she’s four films in and already demanding attention in the best possible way.
Octavia Spencer, arguably Taylor’s muse — or good luck charm at least — brings all kinds of chaotic energy to Sue Ann aka Ma. Even knowing from the trailer that she is bad news does not prepare you for what is to come. Not because it is outrageous, although it certainly becomes that too, but because she cons us as much as the teens. Even now I am not sure where she intended things to go. If she always meant to use them as she did or if her motives and plans changed as people began to react to her. Either way, it is a much deeper effort than I would have expected from a character that has just been wildly over the top and still more or less fit the movie.
The Rest of the Callsheet
The teens are fine but McKaley Miller stands out. Her party girl manages to be both delightfully Dionysian, funny, and smart. Ma snows the teen boys pretty easily but Miller’s Haley sees through the charade nearly as quickly as Maggie. Plus, she has the best line in the movie where she wonders aloud about how another girl in school managed to wait so long for something.
Missi Pyle is appropriately terrible/funny as the head cheerleader all grown up but still acting like high school never ended. She has little to do but she goes for it with zeal. Allison Janney, similarly, has a too-tiny part as a foul-mouthed veterinarian that she just devours and it is a delight.
On the other side of the scale, Juliette Lewis makes for a pretty great mom. Given her past roles, I always expect her to bring the kind of wild, self-destructive energy she did to roles in films like NATURAL BORN KILLERS and STRANGE DAYS. However, that’s counting her short. Here she is wonderfully believable and lived on as a recently divorced mom. Her chemistry with Diana Silvers feels accurate. That sense of friendship between them that blossomed while both were just trying to survive the experience of Erica’s husband/Maggie’s dad leaving. The wry look she gives to a disheveled couch without calling out her daughter for what she might have been doing on it with her boyfriend. Yet, when Maggie goes too far to smile at the rule testing, the way she drops the hammer, with concern and anger. It is a small role, but Lewis crushes.
Tate Taylor is kind of a fascinating figure as a director and he continues that here. He has a great eye. The way he uses walls and foregrounded objects in this movie to build tension and disorient the viewers is very well done. He is also very good with actors, as evidenced by all the praise above.
However, his choices regarding projects feel strange. Best known for directing THE HELP, he received praise for giving Octavia Spencer a platform to get her Oscar. At the same time, though, it came under criticism for white savior issues. Besides that, he also did THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, which looked great but felt inert; GET ON UP, the gently praised James Brown biopic; and PRETTY UGLY PEOPLE, a largely ignored indie that definitely split those who saw it.
This mix of prestige swings, nastiness, and attraction to the problematic make him a difficult director to really embrace. In MA, though, he seems to have found a film collaborated just right for his sensibilities and abilities.
As alluded to above, Taylor’s films often come with the term “problematic,” be it the white saviorism of THE HELP, the weird messages about body image in PRETTY UGLY PEOPLE, or just the idea of a white director capturing the story of one of America’s most prominent black musicians. MA has not been free of such rumblings although it remains to be seen how big a deal they will become.
The concern expressed in advance revolves around possible racial dynamics. After all, this is a horror movie where predominantly white teens are bedeviled by a middle-aged black woman. In practice, however, I think the film addresses this worry right on the screen. The dynamics do receive some attention. However, they kick in more around Sue Ann’s life as a teen. No one explicitly mentions her race or tosses off slurs, but the sense of othering her is strong. Maybe it is just because of her thick glasses, but it does not entirely feel that way, you know? Especially when her ultimate humiliation involves another student who seems coded as nerdy. While she is hounded, he ends up with a “hero” role in the “prank.”
As a result, the present-day actions of Sue Ann read more like a “sins of the father being visited upon the children” situation.
That’s a Wrap
MA is wild. Off the wall, skin crawling, “did she really do/say that?” wild. It pulses with attention-grabbing energy. It is not art but it is stomach-churning fun.