Review: Sandra Oh’s ‘Umma’ Has No Drama, Just Trauma

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Umma (2022)

rated PG-13

84 minutes

opens theatrically courtesy of Sony on March 18

It’s no secret that “trauma” and/or “generational trauma” have become glorified buzzwords in terms of elevating the would-be prestige of horror movies big and small. That’s been the case at least since David Gordon Green’s Halloween sold itself as a groundbreaking examination of generational trauma as it debuted to audiences during the 2018 Venice Film Festival, even as A) at least some of the major plot beats debunk that notion and B) much of the film’s “Laurie Strode confronts the Shape” melodrama was a weak-sauce retread of Halloween: H20. To be fair, folks who have survived/dealt with bad times have long found horror films to be cathartic and/or a source of pleasure amid the pain. Umma has so little to offer beyond the “Hey, it’s about trauma!” messaging that it almost plays like a self-satire.

Alas, we’ve seen too many major entertainments over the last two years, including MCU movies and recent Disney animated features, have used the confrontation of past-tense (or present-tense) calamity as a kind of “get out of jail free” card for implied deeper meaning or (in the case of many small-scale horror movies) a lack of actual production value or onscreen incident. Umma feels like the ultimate end point. It’s a scare-free, almost still-life would-be horror film that offers nothing beyond a subtext-made-text examination of generational trauma. Like way too many recent horror films over the last few years, it’s a small-scale, single-location chiller with a few speaking roles, almost no urgency or tension and little of value to pass the time as we wait for the third-act whammy. Even the payoff is a non-starter.

Yes, it is exquisitely acted, but there’s no “there” there beyond a spelled-out internal conflict between a struggling and tormented mother and her recently deceased matriarch. The film, written and directed by Iris K. Shim, concerns a mother (Sandra Oh) having moved her daughter (a terrific Fivel Stewart) to the proverbial middle of nowhere to turn her daughter’s interest in honey into an occupation. She’s surprisingly successful but still lives in near-total isolation due to her inability to come into contact with electricity. Two converging events, that of her daughter expressing an interest in going away to college and the arrival of her late mother’s ashes on her doorstep, brings about, well, you can probably guess. These inciting incidents occur around 20 minutes into the 84-minute movie, and that’s all there really is.

We get fake outs and incidents of theoretically scary things happening in the dark, but there’s little in the way of a clearly defined threat. Aside from the grumpy uncle (a scene-stealing Tom Yi) who travels to America to deliver his sister’s ashes, the only other characters are a friendly neighbor (Dermot Mulroney) hired to help with the bee business and his teen daughter (Odeya Rush) who is understandably put off by these unusual neighbors but tries to be a good friend to a peer who has no one fighting for her. If anything, the sequences involving Stewart and Rush are the highlights of the movie, mostly because A) they are well-acted and well-written) and B) they provide a break from Sandra Oh worriedly looking at nothing while standing alone in a dark room.

Oh is excellent per-usual, and she’s in almost every frame of the movie. But aside from the few moments where she actually converses with those around her (including eventually explaining her grim relationship with her birth mother), she’s given little to do other than look determined and serious. I did like that the film climaxes not with a special effects freak-out but with a grim conversation, but it all plays like a horror melodrama that forgot the horror and omits most of the melodrama. Whether cut to the bone in post-production or intended to be a blink-and-you-miss it feature, Umma is missing many of the core elements that makes a movie, well, a movie. It almost expects us to fill in the blanks in terms of what we know these films tend to be about.

Well-acted and with its heart in the right place, Umma is the movie equivalent of that scene in Steve Martin’s LA Story where the gang goes to a fancy restaurant and is served comically tiny portions. Yes, it’s Sandra Oh’s first live-action film since Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy in 2014, but she’s been well-served on the small screen (Killing Eve, The Chair, etc.). It’s not like Stage 6 hasn’t offered up its share of “worth seeing in theaters” horror flicks like Searching, Brightburn or The Call. Conversely, this isn’t the first time they and/or Screen Gems have offered up a glorified nothing burger of a theatrical chiller (The Grudge and Slender Man come to mind), which in this era where theatrical is on the ropes almost feels like sabotage. Movies like Umma are why I lost my mind over Malignant.