I have never been married and have no children. For my demographic (38, if you’re wondering), this puts me in the minority, although more Americans than ever before have made the same choice, and our ranks continue to grow. Having no kids definitely shapes one’s view of their behavior, making one an outsider to a lot of the dynamics of boundary-testing and youthful misadventure. I’m old enough that much of my experience from my youth doesn’t apply to the dynamics of today. While my family were extremely early adopters of the internet, social media didn’t exist when I was a teenager and connection speeds were still so slow that the internet was a clumsy, geeky thing for the most part. Cell phones were a new technology, clunky and owned by relatively few people. Some things, however, have not changed and may never change: for example, teenagers will always need a place to party.
2019’s Ma, written and directed by Tate Taylor and starring the inimitable Octavia Spencer, builds upon a simple premise: a small town, a group of bored teens, and their encounter with an adult with arrested development (or maybe something darker?). Ma sucked me in immediately because I recognized the circumstances of its protagonists, to some extent, as I’m sure many others will. I’ve been a teenage transplant to a largely-rural town, one where a lot of underage drinking and enthusiastic drug use happened in a variety of settings. On more than a few occasions, I wound up in situations like the one portrayed in Ma (well, right up until the violent unpleasantness happens, not to spoil any of the film’s twists). That is to say, an adult with arrested development would give me and my friends access to their house as a place to get loose. The price of admission? They got to hang out with us and (inevitably) relive the glory days of their youth.
(Mild spoilers follow in the next two paragraphs.) This sort of quasi-symbiotic generational match is never not creepy. The particular horror that Ma plays upon – and that excellent psychological horror manages to convey in ways both subtle and overt – is the horror of social transgression by inches. In other words: if Spencer’s Sue Ann is willing to buy teenagers alcohol, why wouldn’t she let them drink in her unfinished basement? And if she’d let them drink at her house, why wouldn’t she fix the place up for them, make it into a nice little party-den? And if she’d go to those lengths for them, well, certainly they wouldn’t mind if she joined in the fun a little bit, right? From there, we can follow the logic laid down by every horror archetype from the vampire to the demon-lover to the ghostly hitchhiker: it’s far easier to invite a malignant force into your life than it is to banish it once it has been summoned.
Where Ma falls a bit short is in its lack of confidence in its premise. What I’ve outlined above is more than enough motive to drive a twisted psychological thriller about stalking and abusive adult-teen relationships. Ma did not need a trite subplot about past trauma inflicted on Sue Ann, nor did it need a far-fetched revenge scheme to explain Sue Ann’s behavior. In fact, I think that the revenge backstory actually weakens Sue Ann as a character. I understand the writers’ desire to make her a sympathetic villain, and applaud them for that choice, but Sue Ann’s contentious work relationship, lack of an apparent personal life, and obsession with social media, texting, and the “cool kids” shine through in Spencer’s performance. Sue Ann was pathetic enough without giving her root trauma such a predictable form, or her descent into violence a sort of misplaced righteousness.
On the whole, Ma is an effective horror film on a lot of levels. I anticipated feeling sympathy for Sue Ann, an awkward adult essentially exploited (at first) by callous teens. What I did not anticipate feeling was a twinge of guilt, the stirrings of memories of my own misspent youth and the awkward adults who orbited its periphery. I was, I suppose, a callous youth myself. Ma is a reminder that I was also lucky; any of the strange folks who bought me beer and cigarettes could have been more dangerous than I thought. None of this is to chide teens for partying, I hope you’ll note: I think that boundary-testing and even the perpetration of (sometimes spectacular) mistakes are essential parts of growing up. Furthermore, I think that while there are forms of getting altered that push the chemical envelope too far and can lead to dependency, injury, depression, or other mental illness, there is also no denying a simple truth: partying is fun, and, to an extent and when done relatively safely, even good for you.
As an unmarried adult with no children, I’ve developed what I think is a winning strategy for dealing with teens: I leave them alone entirely. I don’t lecture them, I don’t “hang out” with them, and I certainly don’t party with them. I also have little interest in rehashing the relationships or glories of my own teenage years – while a few of my friendships from those days have survived, most of the folks I’d call my “party friends” have lost touch. The horror that provides the culmination of Ma, the blood and terror, were mercifully not part of my flirtation with poorly-balanced, boundary-crossing adults. But it easily could have been.
(* Title with apologies to TV On the Radio)