1 Hr., 39 Mins.
Ma / Always Be My Maybe June 11, 2019
Daniel Dae Kim
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
be a part of me,” Carey sings in the chorus. “I'm part of you indefinitely / Boy, don't you know you can't escape me?”
In Always Be My Maybe, a new Netflix rom-com starring the comedians Ali Wong and Randall Park, the nicer interpretation of the song fortunately works as the movie’s thesis statement. In the film, Wong and Park, respectively, play childhood friends Sasha, a celebrity chef, and Marcus, a peaked-in-high-school 30-something who runs an air-conditioning business with his dad. We learn that around 2003, when they were seniors in high school, they awkwardly parted ways after a surprise romantic encounter curdled. The “you’ll always be a part of me” line has stuck. Early in the movie, the characters reunite following years of thinking about each other. Eventually they rekindle and then light up the spark that never flamed.
The romance and comedy are bland, though palatable. Park and Wong, while formidably funny in other contexts — Wong is a particularly spunky standup — find their razor edges smoothed out, and, though appealing together, don’t have much by way of chemistry. But the loosely autobiographical Always Be My Maybe, which Wong and Park wrote with Michael Golamco, and was directed by Fresh Off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan, is still buoyant and watchable — a perfectly fine rom-com with glints of genre splendor.
It’s at its peak when it tweaks conventions, usually through its supporting cast. In so many films featuring Asian-American characters, a stereotype — that the leads’ parents are ascetic, helicoptering, hard-to-please immigrants — makes way. But Marcus’ widowed father, played by James Saito, is a witty mellow-heart who pokes fun at the transgressions of his son, who’s a stoner and in a goofy area band. Sasha, who grew up a latchkey kid, finds her parents trying to re-enter her life after realizing that they had essentially neglected her as a child.
The most inspired casting, and what’s helped bolster Always Be My Maybe’s acclaim, is a terrific Keanu Reeves, who plays a funhouse-mirrored version of himself. Temporarily around as a love interest threatening Marcus and Sasha’s promising romance, he speaks only in cinematic platitudes, douchily wears no-lens glasses for parts, and breaks vases on his head during heated games of “Truth or Dare" to seem tough. “I want you to strike me,” he says through gritted teeth after sensing Marcus isn’t a fan of his.
The 10-minute-or-so Reeves detour is the best thing about the movie; it also features some of the best work from the actor, who’s so far been having a busy, high-profile 2019. It’s during this act, though, that we sense the movie might have been riskier, and weirder, than it is. Risks I wish, considering the track record of those involved, it would take. Fitting that the title of the movie summons an ambivalence about committing to something.
Always Be My Maybe: B
lways Be My Baby,” the fifth track off Mariah Carey’s Fantasy (1995) album, has always been a little accidentally creepy. The song goes for the schmaltzy stance that even if Carey and her lover part ways, he will always have a special place in her heart. But it isn’t hard to spin it as a song about a stalker or some sort of close-enough obsessive personality. “You'll always
that there’s something “off” about Sue Ann, they indulge her anyway, to a near-lethal point.
Ma, the fifth collaboration between hack director Tate Taylor and his muse, the Oscar-winning actress Spencer, is a blunder of the teen slasher movie, and of logic. It seems engineered to be made for these times but is also an insult to these times, that is if Taylor “understands” them. With co-screenwriter Scotty Landes, he embeds in the film a #MeToo set piece, arguably attempts to subvert the long-evolving mammy stereotype through horror, and invokes themes of racial oppression in a small midwestern town. But its narrative summoning of #MeToo is exploitative, its lead-character ideas are cheap, and its racial underpinnings are at once crassly and evasively developed and executed.
Spencer is technically the lead. She plays a lonely vet technician named Sue Ann, who lives in an expansive two-story on the outskirts of town with her daughter. But she’s more secondary than anything. The movie is more emotionally invested in Maggie (Diana Silvers), a pretty, dull teen who, as the film opens, is moving back to the hometown of her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), after the latter’s marriage falls apart.
Maggie isn’t given much time to be the friendless new kid in town. Just moments into the movie, when she’s eating a sad sack lunch in the library, alone and looking at the wall, she’s taken in by one of the school’s defining cliques. It’s made up of the big-mouthed Haley (McKaley Miller), the boorish Chaz (Gianni Paolo), the timid and tragic Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), and Darrell (Dante Brown), who is provided no discernible personality or backstory. His defining characteristic, I suppose, is that he’s one of the few black people in town.
The friends come into contact with Sue Ann after school while perched at a corner store. They intend to go to their school’s main hangout — an abandoned stretch of cement-block-covered land known as The Rock Pile — to drink late into the evening. They take turns awkwardly standing outside the market, trying to discreetly persuade 21-and-older townsfolk to buy them liquor. Sue Ann, who appears maternalistic in her scrubs and badly styled bowl-cut wig, ends up being
the unlikely bidder after taking to the innocent-seeming Andy.
Before long, Sue Ann is the group’s go-to middlewoman. The relationship expands dramatically over the next few weeks. She starts inviting the quintet over — then the rest of the student body — to her home to party in her basement, with the promise that they’ll remain unbothered there. There are a couple of caveats. All guests must refrain from going upstairs and must exclusively call her Ma. Not a problem when you get free drinks and get to dance to such up-to-the-minute cuts as “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc. and “The Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats.
Many things about Ma, besides the fact that she enthusiastically does shots with the underaged, are cockeyed. She openly flirts with the boys in the group, going as far as sexually humiliating Chaz in front of his friends in a scene that drags on so long it verges on being leering. She doesn’t appear to have any friends or family. She almost seems to blend into the wallpaper when in public and at work, where she’s constantly reprimanded by her boss (Allison Janney) for being on her phone.
It isn’t until the middle of the film that Sue Ann is deemed a veritable threat. A certain morning, one of the friends wakes up in their bedroom with no memory of the night before or how they got there. Their limbs are covered in bruises; some of their garments have been taken. Sue Ann had to have had something to do with it. Haley, through either Instagram Live or a kind of mass message that indicates no one behind the scenes knows how teens, or humans, communicate over the phone, tells her peers to cut off all contact with Ma.
This will predictably prove futile. Sue Ann is not simply an irresponsible, lonely woman in her 40s. She has ulterior motives. Decades ago, the parents of most of the kids constituting the central five were involved in a plot in which Sue Ann was taken advantage of, sexually assaulted, and then vigorously mocked by her peers after the act. Her dedication to the group has nothing to do with a desire for them to, in her words, party like rock stars. It's all permeated in a thirst for vengeance.
Taylor and his collaborations have no interest in meaningfully exploring anything leading up to, or coming after, the assault. They're also vexingly oblique about what motivated it to begin with. They indirectly tell us that Sue Ann was picked on because she was dorky — a gangly, bespectacled girl with bad hair — when undoubtedly it was at least partially racist, given the fact that Sue Ann is the only adult of color we see in the very-white midwestern town in which the film is set.
We have no sense of how she coped after the incident. The suggestion, laughably, is that she’s been sitting around and waiting for the perpetrators involved in the conspiracy to have kids, letting those kids get to an age where they’ll solicit her for alcohol outside a corner store, all the while having her fingers crossed that the next generation forms an almost-identical friend group.
In the intervening time, Sue Ann had a child. She’s now a rightfully nervous teenage girl named Genie (Tanyell Weivers), living under the conditions of a Munchausen syndrome by proxy victim. She’s one of the friend group’s classmates and appears as ably as she disappears. That narrative detour is predictably unexplored, though: We don’t know what became of Genie’s father; we don’t know how Sue Ann and Genie’s relationship has evolved over the last 16 or so years.
How are we to view Sue Ann? In certain moments, it’s clear that we’re to sympathize with her. She’s painfully susceptible in high-school flashbacks. In them, she's totally naive and trusting, characteristics that are crushingly exploited. There’s another moment where her car is egged by a gaggle of high-schoolers and she breaks down in tears. There’s an image where she’s wistfully watching partygoers going wild in her basement, and her yearning to recreate a childhood experience she missed out on is tangible. But more often is she depicted as grotesque, someone who must be destroyed, especially during the last act when she becomes a less-than-subpar Jigsaw. Uncertain is whether Taylor and Landes are going for Norman Bates-style contradictions. Are we to flatly condemn her, or first unpack ethics and motivations before coming to any conclusions?
In Ma, Spencer reminds me a lot of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). In the latter film, Davis plays the title character, a former child actress who has lost her mind and lives with her paraplegic sister (played by her famed nemesis, Joan Crawford). Davis is notoriously berserk in the movie. Stuck in an antic state of arrested development, she dresses and acts the way she did when she was a kid performer. Her clothing is all poofy and cutesy and pin-striped; her makeup is caked on like a rag doll; her hair is in vaudevillian ringlets. She’s also prone to outbursts of violence and has a propensity to torture her sibling in the wee hours. The movie is something of a dark comedy, but it more so feels like a tragedy. Davis’ performance is outré and blackly humorous, yet pathos is never lost in the wilderness. The batty character is undergirded by a sadness that’s difficult to shake off, complemented rather than undercut by the supporting characters.
Spencer leans into a lot of the same characteristics of Davis’ Baby Jane. The fits of mad cackles, the (admittedly subtler) parodistic makeup and hair, the ways in which defining personality traits play a part in the inflicted sadism. Jane sticks dead animals in places they don’t belong, slaps like a fitful toddler. Sue Ann uses needles, irons, and sewing tools to damage the bodies of the tortured. She, too, is stuck in a sort of limbo because of something traumatic that happened to her.
Baby Jane at least attempts to pare down why all these attributes are interconnected, and what it’s taken for Jane to get to this place. Most everything in Ma, which is poorly explained and fuzzily written, feels tied together by stringed cheese. Jane is a villain whose complicated backstory makes our relationship to her thrillingly difficult to untangle; Taylor and Landes, in contrast, imbue the film with no urgency or emotional believability.
Ma is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a theatrical setting, yet it also makes for one of the more memorable movie-going experiences I’ve had in a while. In the months leading up to its premiere, a curious thing happened. Social-media users — specifically ones on Twitter — took notice of the absurdities featured in the trailer and turned them into memes, several of which have remained fixtures on my timeline since. A movie I once had no interest in seeing suddenly became highly anticipated. The product, fortunately, lives up to what I wanted. Indeed Ma is a so-bad-it’s-good horror movie I wouldn’t mind watching again, next time with a larger group of friends. The trouble is that it’s a thorny so-bad-it’s-good horror movie — one that, even if re-written as to be conventionally “good,” still features a lot of either outdated or basally myopic ideas that cannot be outrightly excused for the sake of cheap laughs. It’s riotous, to a point.
How Taylor has continued making terrible movies while remaining a trusted mainstream filmmaker is among cinema’s deadliest sins. I want to say I can’t understand why Spencer keeps working with him, but of course she’ll remain devoted to a filmmaker who played a big part in her winning an Oscar. I would have preferred it if Spencer, who didn’t read the script before signing onto the project, let quality trump loyalty in this case.
on’t make me drink alone,” Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), the antagonist of Ma (2019), says, a smidge threateningly, early on in the movie. Perhaps the biggest mistake made in the film — and there are many made — is that its teen characters, who stupidly align themselves with Sue Ann during the first act, don’t just let her drink alone. Even though one character points out