There's a great deal of fun to be had watching "Ma", a nasty yet surprisingly empathetic movie.
The main terror is Sue Ann (played by Octavia Spencer), a middle-aged woman still haunted by a traumatic high school experience. Her solitary life suddenly takes a left-turn when she encounters a group of teens, headed up by wide-eyed new girl Maggie (played by Diana Silvers), who asks her to buy them alcohol for an illicit party.
She reluctantly agrees, and after some casual Facebook stalking, develops an idea: the kids can drink in her basement if they promise to avoid the rest of her house. But while the initial arrangement works like a charm for both sides, providing the teens with a place to drink without rules, and Ma some much-needed company, her intensity soon gets out of control.
"Ma" is a curious match of director and material with Tate Taylor, known for glossy, rather anonymous mid-budget Oscar bait such as "The Help", "Get On Up" and "The Girl on the Train", getting down and dirty with Blumhouse, the hit-making genre house behind "The Purge" and "Get Out". It mostly works, too, with Taylor’s dramatic experience helping to add weight to schlocky material, allowing depth to how we see Ma as a victim as well as a villain.
Taylor and Spencer are long term friends (the pair lived together for seven years), and he decided the character, originally written as white, would be perfect for her, an incisive casting choice that pays off handsomely.
It’s a thrill to see Spencer given a role she can really devour because, despite winning one Oscar and being nominated for two more, she has often been stuck in repetitive support territory.
While the high schoolers might ultimately have more screen time, this is inarguably her show, and it’s an extraordinarily well-calibrated performance. Spencer effortlessly pulling the strings, in perfect control of how we perceive her from scene to scene.
She flips between embarrassing to awkward to creepy to funny to vulnerable with invisible ease, garnering our sympathy before encouraging our repulsion.
In one particularly powerful scene, after being hoodwinked by some callous teens, she sits back in her car and weeps, and it’s crushing. A rare moment of humanity for someone capable of sickeningly violent acts.
Throughout the film, we’re offered flashbacks to Ma’s time at high school, leading up to a cruel prank that helps to shape who she later becomes. It’s unusual within this genre to see abuse treated with such care and as in the aforementioned adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, we see how the untreated after-effects of bullying can lead to chaos.
There’s a connection between Ma and the kids she preys upon, offspring of the kids who mistreated her at the same age and there’s a sadness to how Ma can’t decide whether she wants to be part of the group or destroy them, a youth violently ripped from her that she desperately wants back.
The high schoolers are mostly forgettable but there are some juicier roles for the adults, including a vampy Missi Pyle, a menacing Luke Evans, a bitchy Allison Janney and a wonderful Juliette Lewis, giving ever so much to her small role as a concerned single mother.
There is, however, a discordance that does prove increasingly distracting. As the film progresses, characters become pawns, often acting in laughable ways simply to push the plot forward and the script, from" Workaholics" writer Scotty Landes, quickly descends into stupidity.
It’s a shame as by the time we reach the overwrought finale, investment has diminished, and so has the interest, the film evaporating when it should be boiling over. But Spencer works hard to keep us on her side, and it’s her messy, melancholic character that endures.
"Ma" is a few more drafts from perfection, but the actor playing her is the real deal.