2019, R, 98 mins.
Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann / Diana Silvers as Maggie / Juliette Lewis as Erica / McKaley Miller as Haley / Allison Janney as Doctor Brooks / Corey Fogelmanis as Andy / Tanyell Waivers as Genie / Heather Marie Pate as Ashley / Gianni Paolo as Chaz / Dante Brown as Darrell / Dominic Burgess as Stu / Missi Pyle as Mercedes
Directed by Tate Taylor
MA is a new entry in an increasingly generic psychological thriller genre featuring deeply unhinged psychopaths that initially manage to find a way to befriend a small group of people with false displays of amiability before later being revealed as being dangerously unhinged and, well, full-on evil.
produced effort concerns a group of partying teenagers who become close
with a lonely middle aged woman that gives them access to booze and her
basement to party...but then she's revealed to be an unchecked nutjob.
There's one thing that helps elevate this fairly pedestrian
material: the presence of lead actress Octavia Spencer in the stalker
role. The Oscar winning and multiple nominated star manages to
create a creepily unhinged and layered performance amidst this film's
Unfortunately, too many
creative missteps built around her stellar acting conspires together to
make MA more cheaply disposable than chillingly memorable.
for Spencer, though, in talking on a decidedly different type of role than
what we've grown accustomed to in her career thus far (she's never really
played lunatic before), not to mention that her THE
HELP director in Tate Taylor also re-teams back up with her here
behind the camera (after helming the atmospheric, but questionably
scripted thriller THE GIRL ON THE
TRAIN it's equally refreshing to see the filmmaker embrace a more
schlockier end of the genre).
There's a genuine combined effort from both of them to craft a
bleak and violent exploitation thriller with its own share of luridness
while, at the same time, trying to invest in the headspace of its main
villain, which does help separate this film from a very crowded pack.
It's absolutely apparent that MA appropriates many of the most
stale genre troupes (including some spectacularly stupid decision making
by some characters), but Taylor wants to make us think about the unraveling
mental state of its baddie while harnessing the campy absurdities of the
story. Regrettably and for the most part, not all of its gels
together as fluidly as he thinks it does.
MA opens by
introducing us to a young 16-year-old Maggie (Diana Silvers), who has just
come to town with her single mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), in order to
make a new life together and begin a fresh start.
Maggie very quickly is able to acclimate to her new surroundings
and school by making new friends in Haley (McKaley Miller), Andy (Corey
Fogelmanis), Chaz (Gianni Paolo(, and Darrell (Dante Brown), all of which
want to have Maggie join them in many future nights of underage binge
drinking and hedonistic partying.
There's only one issue: securing the booze as well as having a
secure place to consume it.
Fate steps in with Sue Ann (Spencer), who seems awfully nice to the
kids when they politely ask her to purchase alcohol from a nearby store.
She politely obliges, but then ups the ante for them by offering up
her undeveloped basement as a safe haven to partake in their wild plans.
Early on, it
certainly appears that Sue Ann is pushing awfully hard to please these
kids, mostly because she seems to be living alone and without any family
or friends in her life.
Plus, the kids grow to easily like her because she gives them free
reign in her basement, and sometimes even joins in with the young
Weird things, though, start to rear their ugly heads: Her insanely
strict house rules, for example, of never, ever allowing the kids
to journey from the basement to the main levels of her home...and then
when strange noises can be heard coming from above the basement it begins
to peak the guest's curiosities as to what's up there.
Still, the teens keep returning to Sue Ann's home, mostly because
it gives them a relatively safe and secure place to get down outside of
parental and police interference.
But then Sue Ann starts getting sinisterly possessive of the teens,
sending out mass texts and video messages at all times of the day, which
later culminates in some disturbingly clingy behavior that becomes truly
dangerous for all involved.
genuinely interested in exploring the hidden painful layers of what makes
Sue Ann tick, which is noteworthy enough, seeing as lesser films would
have delegated her to a one-note, mad slasher stereotype.
There's an early element of pathetic sadness to this character,
showing the loner desperately trying to become one with the teens and win
them over by joining them in their mass partying ways.
It's her way of experiencing a level of popularity she's never had
her seemingly innocent behavior later gives way to increasingly boundary
pushing hostilities, and the screenplay - via flashback - tries to flesh
out why she became the way that she was due to a dreadful high school
isn't trying to make audiences sympathize with this madwoman, but rather
is trying to show how her humanity was stripped away because of past
Sue Ann becomes a life-threatening monster, yes, but one that has
relatable vulnerabilities and anxieties.
All of this is
assisted by a thanklessly dialed in performance by Spencer, who manages to
keep audiences off guard when the screenplay itself seems achingly
The role requires her to embody a calm spoken, motherly charm in
some instances, whereas in others she has to morph into full-on nightmare
fuel mode as a wickedly unstable teen predator.
Other less committed performers would have pulled out all of the
stops to make Sue Ann a cartoonish antagonist, but Spencer is too shrewd
of an actress for that, and instead opts to make her both hauntingly vile
while painted with a palpable and understandable level of neediness and
loneliness. She's supported by Lewis, who's quite superb in the far
too few scenes that she occupies here.
Allison Janney also shows up in a small role as Sue Ann's verbally
abusive vet clinic boss in a role that only Janney could harness to just
the right snarky effect.
I only wished that the young actors assembled around them were as
confident and distinct in their respective roles; all of the teen
characters here seem blandly interchangeable.
One of the more
damning aspects of MA is on a level of basic storytelling credibility,
which unfortunately taints many past stalker thrillers.
It's a hard pill to swallow buying into these teens trusting this
complete random stranger by agreeing to come into her dark, dreary, and
well hidden basement to party, but it becomes even more incredulous to
believe that they would continue to be guests at this woman's home,
despite piles of evidence mounting that tips towards her insanity.
MA belongs on a list of movies that frustratingly subscribe to the
"Idiot Plot Syndrome," or movies that feature problems that
would be easily avoided or solved if the characters that populated the
narrative weren't morons.
It also doesn't help when the youth characters here are written
without much depth or intelligence, and essentially just become imbecilic
and naive prey being served up for Ma's unavoidable slaughter.
Then there's a whole thematic undercurrent of race relations and
racism that could have compellingly permeated the film, but oddly doesn't.
Sue Ann was horribly bullied by multiple white schoolmates back in
the day, which manifests itself later in some truly toxic actions that she
perpetrates on school kids in the present.
There's a deeply fascinating horror film buried deep beneath this
film's mishandled surface.
Plus, MA gets off to a pretty sluggish and slow start and only becomes diabolically dark in its final shocking thirty minutes (the only section of the film when it becomes genuinely tense, unnerving, and surprisingly violent). Ultimately, MA is a real mixed bag, and as far as this overused genre is concerned I'm growing more tired and disinterested with each new entry. It's also the third mad stalker thriller from this year, just being marginally better than GRETA and a million miles removed improved from the categorically awful THE INTRUDER (with both of those films also heavily suffering from the aforementioned Idiot Plot aliment). Strip away Spencer's admirably multi-tiered performance and her very presence here and there's simply not many reasons that make MA required genre viewing. The film tries to mix up things a bit here and there to keep viewers off balance, but its mostly slavish adherence to horror thriller conventions and formulas basically does it in by the time the end credits start rolling.