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Movie Review

When has a little excessive underage drinking ever hurt anybody?

Don’t answer that. Point is, the teens in Ma think they know the answer: “Never!” they shout as they guzzle vodka straight from the bottle. Also, marijuana is perfectly fine, they think. And vaping? Teen sage Haley announces that if you quit before age 25, “Nothing bad will happen.” Phew!

Admittedly, Haley’s bestie, Maggie, might be a little skeptical of that last bit of her friend’s wisdom. But she doesn’t have the social clique clout to argue. She and her mom just moved from San Diego, and Maggie’s just happy someone wants to hang out with her. No need to press her on the finer points of vaping health concerns.

And let’s face it: There aren’t a lot of social options for teens in this dowdy corner of Ohio. What’re you gonna do if you can’t drink and smoke and vape and have sex? Watch movies? Play sports? Do homework? Puh-leeze.

Still, it’s not as easy for 16-year-olds to get booze as you might think. They, like Blanche DuBois, must rely on the kindness of strangers—and not a lot of strangers want to buy a bunch of high-schoolers bottles of bourbon, for some reason.

But then, Maggie, Haley and their male adjuncts—Chaz, Darrell and the hunky Andy Hawkins—run across Sue Ann.

At first, the middle-age veterinary assistant turns the teens down. She doesn’t need that kind of trouble. But after they plead their case, Sue Ann relents, takes their money and buys them a box full of booze. Was it Maggie’s big doe eyes? Or getting a gander at young Andy nearby? No matter. With the alcohol procured, the teens head up to the Rocks, where generations of local high schoolers have imbided and gotten drunk.

Then the police show up, putting a damper on the festivities. The cops don’t arrest them, but party time is clearly over for the night.

Next time Sue Ann visits the liquor store for the kids, she offers to let them party in her basement. “If you’re going to drink somewhere,” she says, “it might as well be here.” It’s safe, she says. She’ll rest easier knowing that they’re drinking someplace where there’s some semblance of adult supervision.

Maggie and the rest are grateful, of course. And Sue Ann makes just one request: Don’t go upstairs.

Why, if they did, they might see all the pictures she has of the teens—and their parents—plastered around her bedroom mirror. They might notice all the meds she’s pilfered from the clinic. They might even wonder why her whole second floor is caged off from the rest of the house.

Nope, all the teens need to do is go to the basement, pour themselves a shot or three and party until they pass out. After all, when has a little excessive drinking ever hurt anybody?

Positive Elements

Maggie seems like a nice enough kid. At first, she tries to be at least a bit more responsible than her hard-partying pals. And during her first day of school, she does give a girl in a wheelchair a considerate push.

But outside of that bit of not-horrible behavior, the “positives” we see in Ma are strictly of the “smite the sinner” sort.

Sue Ann—or “Ma,” as she comes to be known—is no cookie-cutter villain. In fact, we come to feel almost as much sympathy for her as we feel horror over what she does. She was rejected and bullied by her own high school classmates (many of whom we meet), and she tells someone that the scars she suffered as a teen never really healed. And through her tragic story arc, we’re told that what we do—even when we’re young—matters. Our actions come with consequences.

The teens in the movie learn this lesson the hard way. Ma is ultimately a cautionary story about maturity: When we see Maggie trading quiet evenings with her loving mom for hedonistic parties in Ma’s basement, we know she’s making some bad decisions—and she eventually comes to realize that, too.

You could see the whole movie, on some level, as a sort of teen-centric Faustian fable, with Maggie and her friends selling their souls for booze, drugs and curfew-busting parties. But when it comes to Faust, there’s always a devil waiting to collect.

Spiritual Content

Faustian musings aside, Ma doesn’t have much explicit spiritual content. We do learn that Ma has a strong (if warped) Christian background: She tells her new friends that they can do pretty much anything they want to in her basement—but she doesn’t abide people taking “our Lord’s name in vain.” One of the partiers in Ma’s basement, we learn, is a preacher’s daughter—even though she doesn’t party much. She pretends to sleep on a couch there, we’re told, so that she won’t have to drink and thus won’t get in trouble.

Sexual Content

Maggie and Andy start going out together. The two make out in Maggie’s house (waiting for Maggie’s mom, Erica, to come home); they hurriedly compose themselves (and fasten their partly undone clothes) when they hear Erica return. (Erica knows what they’ve been up to, and she casually picks up cast-aside throw pillows and puts them back on the couch.) We see them kiss elsewhere, too, and their friends joke about them having sex and conceiving because of it.

But Sue Ann seems attracted to Andy, too, and Maggie knows it. In fact, she seems to have a thing for teen boys in general. After a guy named Chaz tries to intimidate Sue Ann, she pulls a gun on him and forces him to strip: We see the teen from both the front (he covers his privates with his hands) and rear. And later, when the same kid is unconscious, Ma lifts up his shirt and notes how “perfect” his skin and stomach are.

A guy lies mostly naked on a bed. His midsection is covered with a towel, but we partially glimpse his male anatomy. We see lots of students kiss and make out (including one or two same-sex pairings). A girl shows off a bracelet that her beau gave her for their five-month anniversary, and she talks about how she allowed him to have sex with her in honor of the occasion. (Haley wonders what took her so long.) We hear that a couple is having sex in Sue Ann’s basement bathroom.

Maggie’s mother works at a casino, and her uniform is a sequined, revealing getup. We hear lots of conversations about sex and baby-making. Girls and women wear revealing and sometimes suggestive clothing. Both Maggie’s mother and her best friend jokingly compliment Maggie on her rear end.

[Spoiler Warning] Turns out, Sue Ann also had a crush on Andy’s pops, Ben, back when the two of them went to high school together. In flashback, we see how Ben and a couple of the school’s other popular kids invited the mousy Sue Ann to a party where Ben feigned interest in her. Then sometime later, Ben invited Sue Ann to meet with him in the janitorial closet, and a girl coaches Sue Ann on how to give oral sex. In the darkened closet, we hear the sexual encounter take place—but when the door opens, Ben’s standing outside with what would seem to be most of the school, waiting to mock Sue Ann: She performed the act on a stranger.

Violent Content

Sue Ann doesn’t start out as a killer. But when she gets going, she doesn’t hold back.

She drugs a guy, then straps him down on her bed. She holds a knife to his genitals (mostly offscreen) and threatens something horrific, but then seems to change her mind. Instead, she slices open the man’s arm, injects him with something (apparently an anticoagulant drug) and allows him to bleed out. We see the corpse and the blood-soaked mattress a couple of times.

A woman gets run down and run over: We see the body roll beneath the wheels of a truck and the lifeless body lying on the road in a pool of its own blood. Another person is killed off-screen, but we see the bloodied and awkwardly-bent corpse stuffed in a dog kennel.

There’s torture, too: Sue Ann stitches someone’s lips together (a wince-inducing operation we witness in some detail), and she presses a hot iron into another person’s belly, leaving a bloody mark in its wake. Someone else is knocked out by the same iron. A couple of people get stabbed, and another is shot. Several folks wake up to find themselves chained to a room by their necks (an echo, perhaps, of Sue Ann’s work as a veterinary assistant, given the collars they’re wearing), and one person is strung up by her “leash.” She dangles from a beam and gasps for breath.

A dog is wounded off-camera. A teen throws a full can of beer at a truck. A house goes up in flames, presumably killing a person inside. We see some rather disturbing (but not gory or graphic) photos. Several folks get stuck with syringes. People fight and tackle each other.

Crude or Profane Language

Sue Ann may not like it when people swear. But these teens (and their parents) do so anyway.

We hear upwards of 50 f-words, some of them in songs being playing in the background. The s-word is used about 25 times, too, and we hear the c-word, too. And the film still has time to dole out other profanities, including “a--,” “b--ch,” “d--n,” “h---,’ “d--k,” “p---y,” “p-ss” and “crap.” Someone flips a crude hand gesture toward her mother’s back.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Underage drinking sets the whole movie in motion, and we see plenty of it. Sixteen-year-old Maggie and her (presumably) similarly-aged friends often drink hard liquor straight from the bottle. They guzzle beer and down shots, too.

And it’s not as if teen drinkers typically imbibe in moderation. The youth in this movie are drinking with one purpose: to get drunk. Most succeed, and some pass out—either from the alcohol itself or from the drugs that Sue Ann often laces into the liquor.

Sue Ann doles out a lot of drugs, all of which she pilfered from the vet clinic she works for. Often, she injects these drugs straight into the skin. But she also forces folks to take pills, checking to make sure her subjects have swallowed them.

Some characters—again, mostly underage—smoke both cigarettes and marijuana. People vape and use a bong. Sue Ann meets someone at a bar who drinks whiskey. We see the inside of a liquor store. People consume wine and champagne at a casino, and one person is clearly drunk.

Other Negative Elements

We see the inside of a casino (along with some of the associated gambling games there). At least one person seems to get sick from drinking too much. Some people complain about needing to use the restroom.

Lots of people act pretty horribly here. Someone lies about having cancer—a ploy, it would seem, to get a little pity. Maggie says some really nasty things to her mother. A black teen has his face painted white.

[Spoiler Warning] Sue Ann won’t allow anyone to come upstairs, telling her guests that her life is “complicated.” Turns out, that complication is a daughter whom she’s keeping, essentially, locked up. It’s a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy: Sue Ann tells her daughter that she’s seriously ill, and she gives her a battery of drugs to make her look and feel sick. Few people even know that she has a daughter (though she does admit to being previously married).

Conclusion

When Ma ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy. Including those of us in the audience.

Ma, starring Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer and directed by Tate Taylor (who first directed Spencer in The Help), boasts larger ambitions than your typical slash-and-hack horror flick. It delves into such issues as peer pressure and bullying, and it genuinely seeks to critique the bad behaviors it portrays. These teens may glory in their bad behavior, but the film never glorifies them for doing so.

But this film’s overall impact is perhaps more dubious.

Call me an optimist, but I’m not sure if most youth really need a movie to tell them that drinking in a stranger’s house is the wisest way to spend an evening. And for those who need such a message, I’m not sure if a movie like this is going to make the difference. And let’s remember that, this being an R-rated film and all, anyone Maggie’s age shouldn’t be allowed into the theater (without a parent or guardian) anyway.

The R rating is well deserved, by the way—and unnecessary for the story at hand. And even as Spencer gives the movie’s titular character layers of depth and even pathos, Ma itself isn’t nearly as deft. If Ma sometimes uses a scalpel, this film is more of a hammer—beating us about the head content we didn’t need and wouldn’t have asked for.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann; Diana Silvers as Maggie; Juliette Lewis as Erica; McKaley Miller as Haley; Corey Fogelmanis as Andy; Gianni Paolo as Chaz; Dante Brown as Darrell; Tanyell Waivers as Genie; Dominic Burgess as Stu; Heather Marie Pate as Ashley; Luke Evans as Ben; Missi Pyle as Mercedes

Director

Tate Taylor ( )

Distributor

Universal Pictures

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

May 31, 2019

On Video

September 3, 2019

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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