It’s not easy being a high schooler, let alone a high schooler in a small town. It seems like everyone knows who you are. And if they don’t, then they at least know who your parents are. Sometimes that’s worse. For Haley (McKaley Miller), Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and Darrell (Dante Brown), that means it’s hard to find someone who will buy you booze and even harder to find a secluded place to drink it. For Maggie (Diana Silvers), it means moving back to your Mom’s hometown and inheriting her baggage.

Erica (Juliette Lewis) left Ohio years ago, but a streak of bad luck has brought her and Maggie back home. Erica isn’t the only one here who’s life has brought them back to the start: Andy’s father, Ben (Luke Evans), lost his wife to pancreatic cancer and now hooks up with his high school flame, Mercedes (Missi Pyle), a mean girl who never outgrew her role. Another former classmate, Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), also lost her spouse a few years back, and the loneliness clings to her like cellophane.

There is something intriguing about how these adults can’t seem to—or refuse to—shed their high school personas. Loss, in one form or another, has brought them all back to the scene that shaped them. Unfortunately, Ma—written by Scotty Landes and Tate Taylor (who also directs)—isn’t interested so much in exploring the inevitability of this cycle as it is in exacting retribution for past deeds. Once again, the children must suffer for the parent’s sin—isn’t that always the case?—and on this timeless shorthand, Ma heavily leans.

And though Ma is a tad uneven, the movie crackles with uneasy electricity anytime Spencer graces the screen. Decked in cat print veterinarian scrubs and a pageboy haircut, Sue Ann, or “Ma,” as the kids call her, is a woman who was pushed to the brink and will be pushed no further. Not that the kids are the ones doing the pushing. They are using her, no doubt, but kids tend to use everyone without much thought to repercussions down the line.

Ma is the latest release from low-budget horror maven Jason Blum and his company, Blumhouse Productions. Made for a budget of $5 million, Ma has a small, insular feel. The high school is a smattering of hallways and closets. The movie’s two main locations are a vacant lot filled with cement rubble and Ma’s basement, which looks like it was constructed in the late 1950s. The apartment Erica and Maggie live in is shabby with bare walls. Granted, they just moved in, but you get the feeling they don’t have much to hang on the walls in the first place.

Each one of these locations adds an anxious feeling, a sense of poverty that could either lash out or crumble at any given moment. They, along with Spencer’s performance, give Ma flavor and appeal. There’s not much beyond them, but they’re enough.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Directed by Tate Taylor
Written by Scotty Landes, Tate Taylor
Produced by Jason Blum, John Norris, Tate Taylor
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown
Universal Pictures, Rated R, Running time 99 minutes, Opens May 31, 2019