Directed by: Tate Taylor
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Allison Janney, Luke Evans, Corey Fogelmanis, Tanyell Waivers, Heather Marie Pate, Missi Pyle
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Plot: Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) is a loner who keeps to herself in her quiet Ohio town. One day, she is asked by Maggie (Diana Silvers), a new teenager in town, to buy some booze for her and her friends, and Sue Ann sees the chance to make some unsuspecting, if younger, friends of her own.
2019’s MA is a film I’ve been wanting to watch since I had seen the trailers two years ago, especially since I found it very interesting to see Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer act in what appeared to be a B-movie horror-thriller. It wasn’t a film I felt deserved my theater attention, since other films at the time felt like major events. But I knew I would definitely put it on my watchlist and wait for its eventual ship to streaming to enjoy in my own home.
I’m glad I caught MA before it expired on HBO Max at the end of April because I wanted to write something for Mother’s Day. And I made the right call in skipping it in theaters since the film has flaws that can’t be overlooked. But it’s perfectly acceptable as a film to watch at home due to its charm and wacky fun provided by a very game Spencer in the title role.
MA is a pretty predictable revenge-thriller that actually takes it time to provide details to why main antagonist Sue Ann behaves the way she does, making our villain more sympathetic than she probably should be in this story. Sue Ann was bullied in high school by her high school crush and his friends, damaging her psychologically. This has caused her issues of abandonment and has given her a desperation to be loved and accepted. When she meets neighborhood teens who want to drink and party and accept her invitation to hang in her basement, she becomes a teenager again and tries to relive the good times she never had. Unfortunately, she starts becoming that clingy friend people want space from, making her upset and gives her reason to lash out at anyone against her. The funny, or coincidental, part is that these teens are the children of her bullies, giving her extra incentive to keep them close. While Sue Ann’s methods are cruel and mostly unfair to the main group of teens, the film gives the audience a reason to feel bad for the villain. While it’s always good to have fleshed out characters, whether they’re good people or bad ones, it hurts a film when the villain has more depth than the actual protagonists we’re meant to care for. And that’s where MA really falters in terms of its storytelling.
Let’s be honest - besides the main protagonist, Maggie, the rest of these teens are either idiots or annoying to the point where you’re not surprised by the plans Sue Ann has for any of them. I guess one could make the excuse that they’re just acting their age and being rebellious teenagers who will take any opportunity to drink, do drugs and party away from parental supervision. But only Maggie feels it’s odd that this random woman who bought them booze wants them to constantly have them hang inside of her basement [while forbidding they ever go upstairs - no red flags at all]. It’s only when Sue Ann gets their phone numbers and their social media info that the warning signs flash, which shows how oblivious these teens are.
It doesn’t help, either, that Maggie’s friends are nothing but predictable archetypes. Andy is the lovestruck gullible boyfriend type. Haley is the kinda-mean girl who wants to be wild and popular. Chaz is the jock. And Darrell is… just there. Even the parents, besides Maggie’s mom Erica, don’t seem that concerned with their kids until they realize Sue Ann is involved [due to them bullying her when they were all younger]. And besides Erica, they all act like jerks. Maggie and Erica aren’t all that developed either, but at least they seem a bit more proactive and smarter than the rest. So they’re somewhat likable as they, especially Maggie, try to get out of this dangerous situation. But really, how is anyone supposed to root against the villain?
Scotty Landes and director/writer Tate Taylor also have trouble balancing the film’s tone. The first hour seems like a drama-thriller that seems to send a message of how bullying can harm one’s psyche and create a repeat of events for a newer generation as a sort of revenge. Sue Ann’s behavior stems from PTSD from her high school years, making it clear that her befriending these cool teens is her way of redoing the past to get over her trauma. The teens treat Sue Ann well for the most part until Sue Ann starts becoming obsessive and needy, turning them off. This leads to the last half hour of the film, which suddenly turns into a “torture porn” flick, with Sue Ann sewing lips shut, burning teens with an iron, and even torturing some by chaining them and abusing them. I’m not saying these elements aren’t watchable or entertaining on some level to an audience. After all, they’re still making SAW movies after all these years since they do well. But the transition isn’t there and it can be jarring since the first two acts seem like Lifetime while the final act seems like Eli Roth had a role in producing. They work separately, which is why the film still manages to be entertaining. But together, it’s kind of a mess.
The direction by Taylor is fine, as nothing about it really stands out in any way. The film is kind of creepy at times, but it’s never scary. But some of the jump scares do work better than they ought to. And some of the cinematography allows certain scenes to have this uneasy feeling about them, building to a predictable conclusion for Sue Ann and her victims. And Taylor does embrace the campiness that Octavia Spencer infuses into her role as Sue Ann. He’s lucky she was the lead because I think MA would have failed otherwise.
Speaking of Spencer, she’s the best part about MA. No matter the quality of the film, my rating always goes up when I see actors having fun playing their respective roles. Spencer is having the time of her life here, just hamming it up and portraying Sue Ann in many different emotional layers. At times, we feel sorry for her. At other times, we want her to get her comeuppance. But Spencer gives it her all and really makes the role fun to watch. Sometimes an Academy Award winner would think they’re above this kind of material, but Spencer kills it in this role.
The other actors are okay. But of the teen actors, Diana Silvers shines as Maggie. She’s given the most to do and handles it well, making her the easiest protagonist to relate to as an audience member. I bought her confusion, reluctance and eventual heroism. Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans do enough to be passable as the parents and get some good scenes in, especially Evans in the film’s final [naked] act. It’s not a bad cast, but they’re super overshadowed by Octavia Spencer.
And I have to praise the film’s soundtrack, which is full of 80s tunes that I really enjoyed. A great soundtrack will make me a happy viewer, and MA definitely did that in the music department. Loved it.
The Final Howl:
MA is a revenge-thriller that seems a bit muddled in its storytelling, yet still manages to be a fun time due to a game performance by Octavia Spencer as Sue Ann. The transition of a character study for a woman emotionally and mentally damaged by past bullying into a “torture porn” final act is a bit jarring, especially when the character stuff is more appealing than the violent aspects at the end. It also doesn’t help the film when we’re totally rooting for Sue Ann [a.k.a. “Ma”] since she has more depth over the so-called teen protagonists who are nothing but archetypes and do dumb teenage things that will make many wish Sue Ann would have taken them out sooner. However, the flawed narrative still manages to be kind of fun due to Tate Taylor directing some decent jump scares, creepy tension at times and embracing the campiness Spencer brings to her role. Honestly without the Oscar winner, MA would probably be your typical Saturday night Lifetime movie. But she and some of the cast [Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans] do help elevate the material to make it worth a look. Definitely a popcorn and beer kind of flick, but don’t make Sue Ann drink alone. It wouldn’t be good for anybody.
Directed by: Yves Simoneau
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Gallagher, Joanne Whalley, Vanessa Redgrave, Luke Edwards
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Plot: Sexy but unstable wife and mother Jude (Jamie Lee Curtis) walked out on her family three years ago. Now, just as suddenly, she is back. But her husband, Robert (Peter Gallagher), has fallen in love with Callie (Joanne Whalley), an assistant principal at his sons’ school. He asks Jude for a divorce. She responds by trying to turn her three boys against Callie, then by slashing herself and blaming her rival and finally by drawing her 12-year-old, Kes (Luke Edwards), into a murderous plot.
1994’s MOTHER’S BOYS is a lesser talked about thriller that probably would have ended up on Lifetime or maybe a network “Movie of the Week” deal if not for lead star Jamie Lee Curtis. I hadn’t watched this film since my VHS days in the mid-90s, not remembering much about the movie at all really. So checking it out again after decades was an interesting experience, especially since I’ve seen so many films since that have used a similar template to tell the same kind of story. And to be honest with you, if it wasn’t for Jamie Lee Curtis really going all out in her performance here, MOTHER’S BOYS probably doesn’t even deserve to be on your radar.
Based on a novel by Bernard Taylor, the premise is basically 1977’s Academy Award winning film KRAMER VS. KRAMER, but done as a thriller instead. The mother abandons her family for three years due to mental instability, only to return realizing that her family has moved on without her - in particular her husband who is planning to remarry his kids’ school Assistant Principal. He wants a divorce. She wants to divorce the fiancee out of the picture by mentally and emotionally poisoning her oldest son and making sure to eliminate the potential stepmom by any means necessary. There’s name calling. The villain injures herself to blame her opposition and make them look bad. We have multiple attempts at murder. We have sex and seduction. We even have creepy moments where the film implies an incestuous vibe between mother and son. Like I mentioned before, all tropes of a popular weekend Lifetime Movie that would get decent ratings.
The only reason this film even got a theatrical release is because of the strong cast because otherwise, there’s nothing here that audiences haven’t seen before. The thrills aren’t so thrilling because the story never really allows it for things to get that far. It’s not really a sexy film, despite Jamie Lee Curtis looking amazing here, because it’s presented as something disturbing rather than arousing. And considering how psychotic Jude is supposed to be, and even shows visible signs of it in the last half of the film, her portrayal never gets to the point where an audience would feel genuine terror for the character nor fear for any of the characters opposing her.
The film predictably follows a template that’s been done to death by even 1994 standards, never allowing the story to breathe and present genuine surprises and scares [besides a few annoying jump scares where the volume is so loud, you’ll have no choice but to jump] that would make MOTHER’S BOYS stand out. Hell, this isn’t even the best Jamie Lee Curtis performance of 1994, as TRUE LIES was released a few weeks after this film and ends up being a more thrilling experience than this thriller. It’s a shame the screenplay isn’t better because the film has opportunities to take chances that would have elevated the film. But it plays things too safe, as you’ll clearly be able to map out every story beat along the way without much problem.
The direction by Yves Simoneau does what it needs to do and nothing more. The film looks like a 90s thriller, in the vein of THE GOOD SON and THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE. Simoneau uses lights and shadows very well and presents things in a matter-of-fact way that you won’t be missing anything visually that you need to see. The use of jump scares gets pretty annoying by the third one, but at least it’s an attempt to jolt the audience. But like I mentioned, Simoneau doesn’t really try a whole lot to scare or even give the film that tension and suspense it needs to really be captivating. The film is fine visually, but it never pops with any kind of style to make it memorable.
What keeps MOTHER’S BOYS afloat is the cast who is game to make this thriller worth something. Without a shadow of a doubt, this film belongs to Jamie Lee Curtis - who rarely gets to play a villain in a film and seems to be having a lot of fun getting the chance to. She’s super sexy and seductive, while at the same time dangerous and not in her right mind. Curtis starts out subtle but troubled and slowly gets more crazy as the film goes on, as if she’s a timebomb ready to blow. A lesser actress would have made a joke out of this role, but Curtis takes it seriously and becomes the sole reason to watch. Peter Gallagher plays the clueless husband, which is usually his forte, and does it well as usual. Joanne Whalley plays the bland fiancee that gets outclassed by Curtis in every scene they’re in together. With what little she’s given, she handles it well. THE WIZARD’s Luke Edwards plays the confused and angry teenage son well, pulling off a nice uneasy creepiness that felt natural rather than forced. And Vanessa Redgrave plays the grandma with a cane, so you know what’s going to happen to her in this film. Good cast, but only Curtis gets the meat to chew on while the other actors have to fight for leftovers and make them work somehow.
The Final Howl:
MOTHER’S BOYS is a pretty average thriller that would be ready made for Lifetime if it weren’t for the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead role. And quite honestly, Curtis is pretty much the main reason to even check out this film as the story doesn’t take any risks or even try to add in a surprise or two to make the movie remotely memorable outside of Curtis’ performance as a sociopathic wife and mother doing whatever it takes to get back the family she abandoned. It’s more disappointing when there’s some actual intrigue that arrives with the dialogue and interactions between Curtis and son Luke Edwards that’s layered with an Oedipus kind-of-twist that unfortunately never meets its full emotional potential. Instead, the film ends with a typical action sequence [kind of like THE GOOD SON] that shows how not suspenseful the conclusion is. But fans of 90s drama-thrillers will get something out of this, I guess, and Curtis brings the crazy in entertaining spurts that make me wish she were in a better movie. Jamie Lee Curtis fans should check out MOTHER’S BOYS strictly for her scene-chewing performance as a woman on the edge of sanity. Otherwise, not a whole lot else to see here.