Release Date(s)2019 (September 3, 2019)
Studio(s)Blumhouse Productions/Universal Pictures (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Ma is the kind of movie that creeps up on you gradually after establishing its central character, in this case a sweet-faced woman. She appears to be a godsend to kids who want to party, but her idea of partying means more than a parents-free, judgment-free oasis.
Maggie (Diana Silvers) has just moved from San Diego to the Ohio town where her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), grew up and many of Erica’s classmates still live and work. Maggie quickly makes friends at school. She and her new underage pals look for an adult willing to buy liquor for them. Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer, The Help), though initially reluctant, agrees after eliciting a promise that the kids won’t drive after drinking.
Eventually, Sue Ann offers the kids her basement to party, out of view of parents and authorities. She’s the cool adult, blasting loud music on the stereo, providing snacks, and even joining in the dancing. The kids start referring to her as Ma. She has only a few rules: Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, don’t spit on the floor, and never go upstairs.
Flashbacks show us Sue Ann as a lonely, bespectacled high school student who longs to be among the cool kids but is painfully shy. An outsider who wants to be popular and accepted, she becomes the subject of a cruel joke that haunts her to the present day.
As time goes on, the kids move on with their busy lives and visit Ma’s basement less often. Ma is miserable at her job in a veterinary hospital, working for boss-from-hell Allison Janney, and misses the company of the kids, so she reaches out aggressively in order to get things back to where they were. By now, of course, the kids realize something is off with Sue Ann and try to steer clear, but Sue Ann has other plans.
Ma is a horror film offering more than its share of gallows humor as we watch Sue Ann turn from a kindly lady into a monster, prompted by sad memories of the past. If the role had gone to a different actor, the film might have been just another scare flick. But Oscar-winner Spencer gives the film class and induces us to sympathize with her broken, sad Sue Ann.
Though Sue Ann is breaking the law by enabling the kids’ binge drinking, she also expresses maternal concern by taking their car keys away and making sure there’s a designated driver. So when her personality switches from kindly Dr. Jekyll to the sociopathic Mr. Hyde, it is all the more frightening. Through it all, Ms. Spencer keeps a beatific smile, which can be read as sweet and kind or demonically insane. She’s able to switch into either mode effortlessly, making Sue Ann unpredictable, dangerous, and potentially lethal.
Rated R, Ma is quite a showcase for Octavia Spencer. With elements of Carrie and Misery, the film is ultimately about bullying, vengeance, and twisted values. Sue Ann’s awkward, eager efforts to bond with teenagers feel sincere as she tries to win the popularity that eluded and betrayed her when she was young.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p High Definition resolution, is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.39:1. The film is divided into 20 chapters for easy access to scenes. The color palette varies from dim to startlingly vivid, reflecting Sue Ann’s mood. Her dull, baggy clothing in the early scenes, before she meets the teenagers, reflect her feeling of depression and aloneness, as she’s still emotionally unbalanced after a prank gone wrong in high school. Later, she wears bright, stylish outfits that differ markedly from the clothes she wears earlier. A suit and matching hat of red with purple accents really stands out in the basement, as the kids cheer her on. The basement itself is a combination of a typical cellar with assorted clutter and a makeshift disco she’s created for her new young friends. A scene late in the film, in which Sue Ann takes revenge on the innocent teenagers for her years of suffering, features shadows and dim, atmospheric lighting. Scenes set in the school with fluorescent lighting give off a slightly bluish tone.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio with good balance among left, right, and center channels as the sound “moves” along with the characters. Dialogue throughout is clear. The scenes in Sue Ann’s basement blend loud disco music with the sounds of the kids partying. Those scenes become wilder with each successive appearance. By contrast, the creepy basement scenes in which Sue Ann tortures the drugged kids is ominously quiet and subdued, with all attention focused on how she custom-fits her torments to the individual teenagers. In a fire scene, crackling flames escalate to a huge roar as the conflagration burns out of control. Other optional audio tracks include Spanish and French. Optional subtitles include English (for the hard of hearing), Spanish, and French.
Bonus materials on the 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack include deleted scenes, an alternate ending, 2 behind-the-scenes featurettes with cast interviews, and the theatrical trailer. A Digital code is included on a paper insert found within the packaging.
Deleted Scenes – A dozen scenes cut from the final theatrical version are included:
1. Moving In
2. Brain Food
3. First Days
4. Late Bloomer
5. Mom’s Earrings
6. Hobo Attack
7. Sex-Ed Interrupted
8. Dinner for Louie
9. Liquor Store Staredown
10. Fornicating Hooligans
11. Campus Creeping
12. Long Distance Girlfriend
Creating Sue Ann – Sue Ann looks normal when we first see her. Her outward appearance doesn’t suggest her troubled background or what she’s going through. Kids like the ones she went to school with befriend her but, according to producer Jason Blum, “They’re in for a very unpleasant surprise.” Director Tate Taylor comments, “She’s a wounded person with some past trauma. Sue Ann goes back to a delayed adolescence.” According to Octavia Spencer, “She was the object of a practical joke that scarred her.” The costumes for Sue Ann reflect a woman in her forties trying to look like a teenager.
Party at Ma’s – Octavia Spencer became interested in the role of Sue Ann when she learned the character wouldn’t die in the first fifteen minutes. Spencer was happy with Tate Taylor as her director and speaks enthusiastically about her young co-stars. It was important to director Taylor that everyone watching the film could relate to one of the characters. Spencer got into performing the movie’s “crazy stuff” enthusiastically. A fan of genre films, she liked the role because it was so different from those she played in previous movies.
– Dennis Seuling