Sometimes timing is everything. When supernatural horror movie Umma released on Amazon Prime earlier this year, Ti West was blowing away horror fans with his subversive slasher flick, X. On its own merits, Umma is a completely different horror movie focused on the supernatural and featuring one of the better actors of the last 20 to 30 years in Sandra Oh. The fact that Oh has been pretty selective in selecting her work should have been a good omen for the movie. Unfortunately, the critical response to Umma so far has been pretty underwhelming.
On a small American farm, Amanda tends to a colony of bee hives alongside her daughter, Chris. For years, the mother and daughter have lived an isolated existence with no electricity out of fear for a condition with which Amanda believes she’s inflicted. But Chris is close graduating from high school and she sees a future at a college away from home. And when Amanda’s uncle arrives unexpectedly from Korea with the remains of her estranged mother, Amanda’s life takes a drastic turn as strange unexplained events unfold around her.
Umma Never Follows Through on the Promise of its First Act
Umma starts things off on the right foot. From its initial scenes, there’s some atmosphere and light scares that tease bigger things to come. Writer and director Iris K. Shim parses out some mystery – from Amanda’s odd illness to the nature of the estranged relationship with her mother – bit by bit over the first act. While there’s no outright scares, the early going finds Shim testing the corners of the screen and offering enough hints at horrors that may follow. Though it’s not necessarily edge-of-your seat stuff at the start, Umma clips along at a pace brisk enough to be considered methodical. Simply put, Shim teases plenty of potential for 20 minutes or so.
…Umma seemingly tosses aside the early shades of haunts for a tepid, dragging story that feels like it’s recycling overused tropes.
And then somewhere along the line the wheels don’t so much fall off as they just drag to a halt. While Shim excels with the family drama, she struggles to conjure up much in the way of suspense or scares. In fact, Umma seemingly tosses aside the early shades of haunts for a tepid, dragging story that feels like it’s recycling overused tropes. In the absence of any sort of urgency or even mild jump scares, the more derivative elements of Shim’s screenplay become increasingly hard to ignore. While there’s a certainly level of emotional satisfactions, Umma is still a genre movie that fails to satisfy the minimum requirements of the genre – it’s just not scary.
Umma Wastes Powerful Themes and Strong Performances on Tepid Scares
In spite of its lack of scares, Umma boasts some rich themes that might have been more compelling in a different type of movie. There’s an interesting exploration of familial abuse, grief, and intergenerational conflict that dominates much of Umma. As the history of Amanda’s relationship with her mother comes to the surface, one can easily see the potential for more emotional depth and heartbreak. There’s a truth to the story of mothers and daughters that should cut across cultural lines. Perhaps the genre itself – and the expectations it signals to audiences – hurt Umma. As a horror movie, it never drums up the requisite scares while also failing to devote enough serious time to fleshing out its more emotionally deep relationships and themes.
There’s an interesting exploration of familial abuse, grief, and intergenerational conflict that dominates much of Umma.
Much of Umma’s ability to keep you engaged relies on the dynamics between and performances of Sandra Oh and Fivel Stewart. For just over four decades now, Sandra Oh has amassed a pretty impressive filmography. From Grey’s Anatomy to Killing Eve, Oh has impressed with the range and depth of her work. Fun fact, Oh had a small role in the Degrassi High made-for-television movie, School’s Out. And she’s an absolute standout in Umma, showing an impressive restraint to a role where the character is clearly bubbling over with years of pent up emotions. But Fivel Stewart, playing Amanda’s sheltered and naïve daughter Chrissy, holds her own and delivers a quietly strong performance. Veteran character actor Dermot Mulroney and Odeya Rush (Goosebumps) don’t’ have much to do.
Umma Promises a Compelling Exploration of Family Trauma Yet Offers a Middling Horror Movie In Its Place
Great performances and potentially interesting themes aren’t enough to elevate a decidedly mediocre Umma. Not surprisingly, Sandra Oh delivers an outstanding performance; Fivel Stewart is a revelation for audiences unfamiliar with her work on Netflix series, Atypical. And Shim offers an interesting exploration of family wounds and intergenerational trauma from a unique cultural perspective. In fact, Umma works best when it’s focused on its mother and daughter relationships. Notwithstanding these strengths, the horror elements are derivative, flat, and ineffective. As a result, Umma drags itself across an underwhelming finish line.