2019, R, Directed by Tate Taylor, Blumhouse/Universal, 99 minutes
Humans are naturally social creatures, and thus we all crave acceptance. Whether that comes in the form of romantic relationships, deep friendships, or group identity, we all want to feel like we belong to something. And sadly, we’re often very quick to dismiss someone if we feel they don’t quite fit in. There have been countless high school comedies dealing with this subject, as well as a few horror/thrillers. Ma is one such film…
Be Careful Who You Disregard
The film begins with Maggie (Diana Silvers) and her mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) moving back to Erica’s hometown and getting a fresh start. Maggie is quick to make friends at her new high school, and in their struggles to find an adult willing to buy them booze, they meet Sue Ann, or “Ma” (Octavia Spencer). Initially, she seems like the coolest adult in the world to them, as she not only buys them alcohol over and over, but she even lets them party in her basement.
However, they begin to realize that something is a bit off with Ma. She starts pestering them to hang out with her all the time, to the point of desperation. And she quickly demonstrates that she can flip between sweet and generous to psychotic and terrifying in an instant. It seems that she is far more dangerous and temperamental than any of them thought. There’s not much more we can say, without spoiling the plot (even though the trailers basically spoil the ending).
The Brilliance of Octavia Spencer
Ma has its share of horror clichés and other campiness, but what elevates it above mediocre status is the performance of Octavia Spencer. The Oscar-winning actress usually doesn’t work in this genre, but Spencer herself has stated that she was very excited to try something different. Ma reunites her with director Tate Taylor, whom she previously worked with on The Help and Get on Up. According to a recent interview with Access, Spencer admitted that she was intrigued by the role because so often in horror, black characters are the ones to die off in the beginning, and she was excited to subvert that trope and be the villain, which she does so brilliantly.
While playing Ma, she walks a fine line between making the audience frightened of her, while also making us feel sympathetic for her at times. Between her past, as well as her present situation, working for a verbally abusive boss (played ever so sarcastically and brutally by Allison Janney), we see that she doesn’t really want to be the person she is. But due to a tragic life and existence, she doesn’t know how to be anything else. In the beginning, there’s a great deal of tension, as we’re not sure if she’s going to be friendly or snap in an unusual manner. Then by the end, we’re absolutely terrified of her as she goes into full Annie Wilkes territory.
The teenage actors do a decent job as well, though admittedly it’s tough to write compelling teenage characters. Aside from Scream, there really haven’t been many films that did it that successfully. But the overall reason to see Ma is not for them, rather it’s to watch a compelling, layered, sympathetic, and downright terrifying performance by Octavia Spencer!