The title of this article made me laugh! Here is Vanity Fair’s review of Ma.
Tate Taylor’s new Blumhouse vehicle is a lesson in why genre movies need style.
There’s a good movie trapped somewhere in Tate Taylor’s Ma. That’s the frustrating part. The film, which opened Friday, stars Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann, a maternal veterinary assistant in a small town whose life takes a turn when a group of underage teenagers ask her to buy them alcohol. One liquor-store run becomes another, and soon the teens are guests at a series of strange, all-night hangouts in Sue Ann’s basement. Soon thereafter things escalate into violence, generational secrets, and outright horror. There’s stalking, manic video messaging, drugging, a fake cancer scare, murder, a fiery climax —the kind of nonsense a good piece of genre trash needs.
Yet Ma never really lives up to its trashy potential, in part because its attention is overly drawn to the less absorbing nooks of its story—and in part because it tiptoes alongside the true dangers at its center, preferring instead to add more backstory, more psychological padding for it to under-explore.
The movie did well at the box office over the weekend, regardless, raking in $21.1 million in global markets, behind heavy hitters like Aladdin and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Its main story is solid: the teens, played by charismatic young actors Dante Brown, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, McKaley Miller, and Booksmart’s Diana Silvers, bond over being lured and stalked by this increasingly unstable woman, all while hammering out their own burgeoning romances and social anxieties. For much of its run time, Ma seems like it will be a movie about an embittered woman’s misguided attempts to wreak havoc on the lives of a group of random high schoolers.
In truth—without completely spoiling it—Ma is a movie about an embittered woman’s attempts at wreaking havoc on the lives of people her own age: the teenagers’ parents. For my money the adult drama is actually the most satisfying thread here: not the story of the secret housemate living upstairs, or the other story of the secret encounter in a school closet, but rather the insightfully morbid look at a group of adult flameouts (played, alongside Spencer, by the likes of Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans)—who either graduated from high school, left town, tried to make something of themselves, and came back with their tails between their legs; or never left in the first place, playing out their middling adulthoods on the same streets and backroads that defined their upbeat teenage years.
It’s no wonder these adults never get past what happened when they were kids. Ma is to a great degree a movie about the adolescent traumas that never leave us, festering so far into the future that our own offspring are still unknowingly fighting our battles, Hatfield and McCoy-style—or Hatfield and McCoy versus Sue Ann.
That’s the petty drama that makes Ma as entertaining as it is—well, that and Spencer herself, of course. She won an Academy Award for best supporting actress the last time she collaborated with Tate Taylor, for her role as a headstrong maid in his 2011 film, The Help. It’s thanks to Spencer and her younger costars that Ma feels almost critic-proof, the kind of movie that’ll be watchable no matter how few chances it takes to really go there.
Which is ultimately the problem. Ma winds up being the least-satisfying kind of trash: it isn’t trashy enough. It has this in common with a few films of late—Netflix’s underwhelming erotic thriller The Perfection, for example, or the ostensibly batshit but mostly boring Serenity, a sunburnt noir starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. These are films that take what’s ugly, grotesque, and forbidding about their premises and shroud that punkishness in artless flash, overwriting, and bland images: a deficit of style.
But style is at the heart of great trash. It’s what justifies the utter ridiculousness of trash’s cartoonish plots and the outlandish personalities populating them. It’s what renders the far-fetched cheapness of these movies into moments of genuine terror, suspense, and pleasure. We wouldn’t still regard Carrie at prom or Norman Bates in his dead mother’s wig as cultural touchstones if these episodes had come off as mere plot points in their respective movies. They linger because Carrie and Psycho and countless other pieces of great genre trash strategically train our gaze on the most sensationalistic aspects of human nature. They render those horrors into stylistically rigorous, ideologically suggestive, pugnaciously amoral art. Style —Brian De Palma’s split-diopter shots, for example, which Ma and The Perfection both imitate to nonexistent effect—isn’t about mere tricks, but about committing to the bit, twisting what’s inherently silly about these movies into a vision that strikes iron right in the viewer’s gut.
Early on Ma seems poised to be that kind of movie. I’m thinking specifically of a scene in which, as a prank, Sue Ann pulls a gun on one of the teenagers and makes him strip. He gets down to his skivvies and, for too long, Sue Ann drinks of him with her eyes. It’s as repulsive, in its violent objectification, as it is incredibly suspenseful—and not really because of the gun. What unsettles you is the leering.
Here we have a dumpy veterinarian’s assistant and a hot high school jock; we know who sits higher atop the hierarchy of desirability. But we don’t expect this woman to do to this teenager what men routinely do to women, particularly in exploitation movies. And we don’t expect this woman to desire a high school boy so openly. Taylor’s drawn-out shots smartly emphasize the taboo of it: her looking, his body, her violence, his vulnerability.
It’s a delicious moment—so much so that it’s easy to notice how few of the film’s other gambits really live up to it. Even as Sue Ann’s interest in younger men grows increasingly predatory and, for lack of a better word, “problematic,” the movie falls short of really exploring the psychological implications of that fixation, beyond linking it to her own trauma. (Must it always be trauma?) The film reins her in almost every time she nears the edge—though there’s one other exception late in the film, which comes when she threatens to cut a man’s penis off. The movie handles that scene in the same fashion that it handles all of its best scenes: just when it gets good, it ends.
Part of Ma’s problem is one of basic miscomprehension. Sue Ann was once a nerdy black girl in what was, by all accounts, a predominantly white high school. At the very least her tormentors were white—and given how Tate Taylor shoots the flashback scenes laying out this backstory, pitting close-ups of Sue Ann’s face against the deceitful, snickering faces of her classmates, the implications of this racial difference seem pretty clear. On one end there’s the popular kids, with their popular-kid hairstyles, varsity jackets, parties, and social influence, and on the other end there’s the bashful, sweet Sue Ann, all too susceptible to the tiniest manipulations because she is otherwise invisible to everyone else.
Ma is a movie about racial humiliation. But interestingly Taylor doesn’t think so. He recently told GQ that the original Sue Ann was a middle-aged white woman with little backstory. The bullying, sexual harassment, and blackness came later, after Spencer was cast. That explains the disconnect between what’s good about the movie and what’s worst about it: the undercooked stuff was added in later.
It also explains why, in the interview, Taylor denied there being an explicit racial angle to begin with. “Isn’t it funny,” he said, “the way our country is set up, the minute I give a very talented person who’s my best friend a part because she wanted to break out, the movie becomes about race. It’s crazy.”
Taylor isn’t giving his movie, or his audience, enough credit to see this for what it is. A black woman who is still suffering from the social exclusion of her teenage years might have experienced that trauma in racial terms. That doesn’t mean the movie is “about,” race, but it does mean her pathology is—at least in part. Which is at least worth thinking about, as a director, because understanding Sue Ann’s experience and trying to convey that to the audience matters to the story. It inflects the way you shoot and write and perform her scenes, the shape they take in the narrative, their importance to the overarching ideas.
It’s telling that Taylor doesn’t see race as an essential element in the movie he made. It shows that he doesn’t really understand what kind of movie this is, or how it is that smart trash, which Ma could have been, can wield social distinctions like race as elements of suspense and exploitation. He mischaracterizes the suggestion that the movie dovetails with issues of race as a push for the movie to become “about race.” I’m sympathetic to artists’ desire to avoid rendering their movies into political treatises, but he’s overlooking a real opportunity here.
Social differences like race are political, it’s true. But for artists they’re also convenient tools, ways of drilling into anxieties and fears that the audience immediately intuits, even if it doesn’t realize it. We see a woman walking home alone at night in a movie and we all—even misogynists!—understand why she might feel vulnerable. We see a black family in a ’50s setting wander into an all-white diner and we all—even racists!—know why they might feel nervous.
These are codes. They’re essential to genre. And you know Taylor doesn’t understand the premise of his own movie when he doesn’t even seem to understand the codes Ma’s script openly violates. We’re all familiar enough with movie villains, and have a good-enough working knowledge of serial killers, FBI profiling, and the like, to know that when violent shit is going down in a rural suburb, no one’s first choice of suspect is going to be a middle-aged black woman, or even a middle-aged white one.
That’s what makes Ma so intriguing—or could have. The film takes something most black women understand firsthand—the humiliatingly skewed social attitudes towards their desirability—and perverts the archetype of the black mammy such that rather than being the heel of our national joke, she stands poised to take violent revenge. That’s interesting. So why isn’t Ma more interesting, more scandalous, more fun? Taylor and Co. try to handle this tension through writing. They drop the ball by drumming up too intricate and tasteless a backstory, pulling from recent viral headlines and #MeToo sentiment to deliver us something equal parts earnest and undercooked.
That’s what’s disappointing. A movie like this should be impolite, crass, and all the more revealing for it, exposing, above all else, the audience’s limits. These are movies that lampoon representation. They don’t withhold: they embrace their extremes, be they violent, fetishistic, or some other form of grotesque. Ma is that movie on paper. But it doesn’t scratch the itch. For that, we’ll need a movie that knows “trash” is a compliment.