Release Date: May 31, 2019 (Wide)
Blumhouse’s “Ma” might not directly deal with race, but it does shake up the typical slasher formula by taking the token African American character who usually dies first and making them the killer. Director Tate Taylor (2016’s “The Girl on the Train”) and screenwriter Scotty Landes offer a halfway-original premise, even if it goes where one pretty much expects, but they ultimately recognize what they have in Octavia Spencer’s sensational against-type lead performance. If one wants to say this longtime character actor turned Oscar-winner seems to be slumming it in a horror B-movie like this, it would be underselling all that Spencer does with what could have been a stock, over-the-top villain part. Unassuming as it is unhinged, “Ma” is a cautionary tale about teen drinking, a small-town intergenerational revenge story, and a slow-burn thriller all wrapped into one ghoulishly entertaining, off-the-wall package.
Having left San Diego to start a new life, 16-year-old Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) has just moved to a small Ohio town with her casino-waitress mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), who grew up there. Maggie may be the new girl in high school, but she quickly falls in with a group of teens—nice guy Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), party girl Haley (McKaley Miller), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and Darrell (Dante Brown)—who invite her to party. First, they need booze, so they make Maggie stand outside the liquor store to coax someone into buying it for them. Along comes vet tech Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer), who reluctantly agrees and then later invites them to drink in the basement of her isolated home in the woods. She just wants them to be safe and even has them call her “Ma,” but Sue Ann does have one rule: do not go upstairs. The situation seems too good to be true, and eventually Sue Ann’s basement becomes the ultimate house party spot for the kids’ peers, but once Sue Ann’s hospitality turns into neediness by blowing up the kids’ phones and showing up outside their school, Maggie and her friends reject their host who increasingly unravels.
Beginning as an authentic drama about a mother and daughter starting anew, “Ma” is really a bonkers B-movie about a seemingly friendly and hospitable stranger who winds up being a psychotic nutcase when rebuffed. Working again with director Tate Taylor after winning an Oscar for her performance in “The Help,” Octavia Spencer receives her first lead role, where the film seems to have been built around her, and she is immensely fun to watch. In complete contrast with any previous role the actress has imbued with equal warmth and backbone, Spencer is unleashed and seems to be having a complete blast. It helps that Spencer is such a total pro, knowing just how to play Sue Ann as a human monster without coming across as a monster immediately. Upon Maggie and her new friends first meeting her, Sue Ann passes for normal, until a switch is flipped. She’s lonely and vulnerable, the sins from the past having taken a heavy toll on her psyche, and like anyone else who never felt like he or she ever fit into a clique in high school, Sue Ann wants a popularity do-over of sorts, only through any means necessary. Because of Spencer, the extremes Sue Ann goes to achieve her otherwise unbelievable plan is rendered plausible.
Diana Silvers (2019’s “Booksmart”) is an appealing find as Maggie, who may be adjusting to a new school but comes across as approachable enough to make friends fast. She’s also uncommonly smart for a teen in a horror film, while the rest of the teens do fine with what they have been given and share a natural chemistry with one another, particularly McKaley Miller, a fun scene-stealer as the mouthy Haley. Beyond Spencer’s powerhouse turn, there is a whole ensemble to speak of, right down to the most unknown performer (Heather Marie Pate) who memorably plays a student making a habit out of falling asleep at parties. Of the other adults, Juliette Lewis excels the most in a would-be vanilla mother role, coloring it with edge and love as the strong-willed Erica, and Luke Evans elevates a potentially standard part as Ben, Andy’s father from Sue Ann’s past. Missi Pyle is underutilized as obnoxious floozy Mercedes, and Allison Janney (who also worked with director Tate Taylor on “The Help”) has limited screen time but makes the most of it with her sharp-tongued delivery as Sue Ann’s exasperated boss Dr. Brooks.
As Ma goes off the rails, “Ma” gets more wild and crazy, and yet, it still retains a macabre sense of humor even as abs are ironed and lips are sewn shut. A few final beats with Maggie might have made the conclusion feel less abrupt, although the image director Tate Taylor chooses to close his film on is chilling. The film wants to explore the psychological darkness of bullying and the pressure to fit in, and at times, Octavia Spencer classes it up and almost turns the absurdity into a tragic character study in trauma and desperation with unexpected gravitas and complexity. It might be tawdry, but “Ma” is a deliriously twisted ride that leaves audiences incredulous in the right way.