It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Celia Rowlson-Hall's feature film debut "Ma" doesn't fit into a neat category, or any category at all, for that matter. You could describe it as a meditation on the story of the Annunciation, told through dance and movement, although "meditation" isn't quite right either. There's a song sung at the end of the film by a little girl, but other than that, "Ma" unfolds without dialogue. Everything is told through gesture, frame composition and dance. Eerie stillness is interspersed with sometimes mysterious gestures, like code-signals yet to be translated or prehistoric cave markings. What do they signify? You might not get any answers to that question from "Ma," but "Ma" is more about its visuals than anything else.
A woman (played by Rowlson-Hall) emerges from the desert in the American Southwest, stepping out onto the lonely blacktop. She wears a loose T-shirt, a white cloth draped over her head. The red of her cowboy boots is the only bright color, instantly calling to mind Dorothy's ruby slippers. Her face is dusty. Her eyes are a clear almost white-blue. It's a startling face. She's got a thousand-yard stare. She moves slowly, without recognizable human behavior. She is a marble statue far from her pedestal. A man (Andrew Pastides) driving along the road pulls to a stop when he sees her. He's got blazing blue eyes that match his blue shirt. He stares at her as though she is a mirage. She crawls onto the hood of his car, splaying herself across the hood and windshield in a pose of abjection. Since it appears that she will not be moving anytime soon, he drives that way to the nearest motel, his car pulling into the parking lot like a ship with a living figurehead on its prow.
The man and woman end up traveling together, staying in a series of motel rooms, those brightly-colored yet ratty motels far off the Interstates, where brand-name chains don't reach. Where there's a huge swimming pool but with no water in it. The two communicate through gesture, sign language, and—in one awkward sequence (the only sequence that feels amateurish) playful pillow fights and gorilla imitations. Their journey is stalked by a group of men who infiltrate her room and gang-rape her, seemingly a couple of times. The men are dressed in immediately recognizable costumes (cop, soldier, lifeguard), making them a sort of nightmarescape Village People. But the man and the woman continue on, headed for Las Vegas.
Rowlson-Hall is a dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker. She's created choreography for music videos, commercials, short films (her own and others), television, feature films, for creators as diverse as Gaspar Noé and Lena Dunham. She is credited as the "movement consultant" for last year's stunning "The Fits," where movement plays such a central role it's impossible to imagine the film without her contribution. She's made numerous short films, many of which she stars in, using her lean dancer's body as her main storytelling vehicle. "The Audition" and "Prom Night" (both on YouTube in their entirety) give very good examples of where Rowlson-Hall is coming from, what interests her as a creator. "Prom Night" has a couple of moments that predict "Ma," as the lone woman at the prom twists up a white shirt and her prom dress, turning herself into a statue of Mary on the empty dance floor.
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