Directed by Tate Taylor
Starring Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis
Barely three months after Isabelle Huppert did her demented pirouettes in Greta, Hollywood once again moseys up to the trough of the “crazy bitch” stereotype, this time trotting out Octavia Spencer as another lonely, middle-aged woman unhinged by her baser instincts. The difference is, where Huppert used her famously remote affect as a launching pad into cartoonish insanity, Spencer insists on keeping her lunacy grounded. And the result is far more chilling.
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But don’t get me wrong, Ma is still a load of claptrap; it is a rickety obsession thriller cobbled together from the detritus of influencers obvious (Fatal Attraction), not so obvious (the original Prom Night from 1980), to the-influence-is-there-if-you-squint-hard-enough (A Nightmare on Elm Street). An unassuming veterinary nurse named Sue Ann (Spencer) is approached by a group of bored teenagers looking for an adult to buy them booze so they can go on a weekend bender. It turns out that this randy clique is composed of the kids of people that Sue Ann went to high school with. The group includes Maggie (Diana Silvers), the new girl in town whose mom (Juliette Lewis) has been forced to return to a waitressing job at the local casino after her career ambitions in San Francisco went bust, and Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), the doe-eyed son of a security contractor (Luke Evans) whom Sue Ann once had a crush on. Sue Ann at first appears to be a kindly, maternal presence (thus earning her the nickname “Ma”), encouraging the kids to drink in the safety of her basement. And while the kids initially cannot believe their luck at finding a party spot in their rinky-dink Tennessee town, of course it doesn’t take long until the depth of Sue Ann’s derangement starts revealing itself.
The script by Scotty Landes is too preoccupied with hitting well-trod beats to even question the impulses of its characters. Why, despite alarming evidence they uncover themselves and a cautionary FaceTime blast they send out to their clique themselves, do Maggie and her mouthy friend Haley (McKaley Miller) still go to Ma’s basement for one last party? (Answer: Because teens who allow their rational minds to take over from their raging hormones will miss out on a truly bonkers group photo in the climax.) It doesn’t even pursue threads it sets up: Allison Janney is wasted as Sue Ann’s exasperated boss. And director Tate Taylor, who showed an acute sensitivity to African-American stories through his work on The Help and the James Brown biopic Get On Up, barely even comments on the situation of black people in the South, content to give himself speaking lines in two sequences as the de rigueur ill-fated cop.
It’s a good thing Landes and Taylor have Spencer in their corner. The Oscar winner insists on approaching her most outrageous acts with understatement, digging deep into Sue Ann’s humanity. Spencer doggedly demands that you see this damaged woman for the victim that she is, that you understand why she enslaves her daughter (Tanyell Waivers) through Munchausen by proxy, that you feel a frisson of wish fulfillment at putting hunky white males under duress. Sure, watching someone’s lips get sewn shut is squirm-inducing enough on its own. But Spencer’s compassion gives the squirm factor an added jolt of empathy.
Ma is in cinemas nationwide.
Photographs from Universal Pictures