A film review by Craig J. Koban September 9, 2019

MA jj

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.  

This Blumhouse 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 ridiculousness.  Unfortunately, too many creative missteps built around her stellar acting conspires together to make MA more cheaply disposable than chillingly memorable. 

Commendable props 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 partygoers.  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. 

MA seems 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 before.  But 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 prank.  MA 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 social trauma.  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 predictable.  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.  

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