Ma follows a group of high schoolers that befriend a middle-aged woman (Octavia Spencer) after she buys them beer. After a series of circumstances, the teens end up using her basement as a party spot and affectionately referring to her as Ma. But Ma's traumatic past has left her disturbed and she just might snap.
Ma manages to be a horror movie and a tragic indie drama/thriller at the same time. Despite its unsettling trailer, Ma is full of heart (albeit a broken one) that spends a great deal of its runtime establishing the character of Ma and her traumatic history with the characters in the story. It makes her own disturbing behavior understandable, and to some, controversially justifiable.
No, murdering people isn't an answer, but it is a tale of how our actions can permanently affect someone for years. Ma pours into the tragedy of bullying and social ostracizing and the lingering effects of its trauma. In some ways, you can look at Ma as a realistic take on Freddy Krueger. It's generation-spanning vengeance.
It's a complex watch morally, because the directing gives the audience reason for every single action Ma takes when Ma isn't explaining it herself. Again, it's not a justification of her actions, but you wonder where to put the gun (or knife or syringes or...other things Ma uses) at the end of the day. It makes the cheering section a difficult seat to pick.
Ma is so firmly planted in several genres that it's hard for me to determine what genre is even at its core. Horror is an easy choice, but perhaps a lazy one considering the plot devotes a large amount of time to enveloping the viewer in Ma's past and present experiences that lead her to her current mental state. There's no justifying the actions she takes on some people, but you understand the firing of every synapse.
Octavia Spencer does a fantastic job as the lead. Her troubled and tragic character is perfectly portrayed through her skill and the script. Her castmates are far more cookie-cutter in style, but they fill their roles. It's funny how against the grain this horror movie is, but it still establishes a sizable group of teen horror fodder nonetheless.
Despite the heavy material, Ma manages to keep it light a good portion of the screentime. It feels very self-aware in the trope-y horror elements, but remains grounded in its pursuit of Ma's story. It's a good balance that serves to function the higher purpose of making a good film. And that it is.