Tate Taylor’s predatory party-animal thriller Ma breaks ground for Octavia Spencer’s career portfolio, but not the “Obsession Revenge” subgenre. As a character, “Ma” permits Spencer an outlet for normalized casting frustrations that have since been upturned when Blumhouse recognized the menace in her otherwise compassionate and typecasted eyes. As a film, Ma writes itself in circles of justification reliant on “kids will be kids” or “assholes will be assholes.” Don’t get me wrong, what teenager wouldn’t regularly attend fully-stocked basement ragers overseen by Bumblefutz, USA’s “coolest” – aka legendarily irresponsible – single adult? It’s more how, disappointingly, Taylor’s spiked YA horror punch tastes of price-slashed subplot distilling versus premium neatness fit for Ma’s rockily shaken presence.
Ms. Spencer stars as hapless veterinarian assistant Sue Ann, a longtime resident of the same rural area code since (at least) high school. On the flipside are mother-daughter combo Maggie (Diana Silvers) and Erica (Juliette Lewis), California transplants moving back to mama’s hometown. Sue Ann, the middle-aged pet handler. Maggie, the “new girl” searching for friends. It’s under chance circumstance how Sue Ann and Maggie meet, as the nervous teen convinces Sue Ann to purchase her new classmates alcoholic beverages. Sue Ann agrees, and further offers her basement as a haven from nosy cops or strict parental rules. “Ma’s” underground hangout becomes an underage hotspot overnight, but Maggie soon suspects their suspiciously generous hostess isn’t the sweet-as-pie provider she puts forth.
Ma‘s horrors are few and far between. Closeted and locked away. Scotty Landes’ script dwells on Sue Ann’s past through flashbacks while her current transfixion on Erica’s daughter, or local security specialist Ben’s (Luke Evans) son, reveals thematically devastating emotional damage. You might flinch once, or twice, but Taylor emphasizes adolescent binge drinking and bong ripping over tragic mysteries. Sue Ann’s backstory culminates as we’d expect, far later than necessary, leaving Ma’s Act III kidnapper rampage stifled by neglectful decisions excused by intoxicated logic.
It’s a shame, since details defining Sue Ann’s inappropriateness document blind eyes and vigilante foolishness in high midnight order (don’t *tell* Ma you’ll “handle things yourself,” dummy).
For instance, Sue Ann *frequently* gets called out by boss Doctor Brooks (Allison Janney) for ignoring work duties while Facebook stalking jailbait “friends” or gazing distracted out windows instead of answering front desk phones. In these moments, Spencer disassociates from reality with chilly isolation. Snapping her grin into a frown upon being called-out for bossiness, or confronting Maggie’s crew on school grounds, frantically demanding weekday drinking buddies. Peace offerings of pizza rolls and Parrot Bay give way to Ma’s malicious maternal camouflage, as Spencer’s proclivity to fly off multiple handles stokes decades-old rage forever inflamed. Hunting in plain sight; a delusional “mastermind” aided by her targets’ undeveloped cranial tissue and alcohol’s numbing effects.
Alternatively, Taylor builds Ma out of Frankensteined pursuer subarcs pivotal to singular moments but lost in a grander portrait of B-movie madness. Perhaps it’s Ma’s sticky-fingered jewelry thief subplot meant to toy with Maggie’s collective that’s oddly reckless and only included for a home invasion beat. Maybe it’s local law enforcement’s ghost town presence that allows Ma to get away with literal murder under no suspicion (Taylor cameos as Officer Grainger). Ma’s energetic smartphone video messages insight paranoia (“Don’t make me drink alone!”), her overt kindness triggers immediate discomfort, and a secretive second-floor reveal in Sue Ann’s house furthers messages of lasting damage spun from Ma’s bullied high school embarrassment. It’s just the sum of her wolf in caretaker’s scrubs is predictable and believed long enough to plummet momentum – even with penile threats or vehicular manslaughter additives.
Diana Silvers leads a collection of thoughtless children molded from punk-brat stereotypes and John Hughes clichés. McKaley Miller as the says-what-she-wants gossip bitch who mouths off without remorse, prodding Ma with insulting quips. Gianni Paolo as Chaz, the Chaziest bro to grace Blumhouse’s canon with his zero intellectual activity and chiseled abs. Ma’s basement indulgences evoke comical behavior like Heather Marie Pate’s pastor’s daughter who pretends to pass out at parties as a method of drink avoidance, but often Ma’s blatant sinister outbursts are forgotten thanks to liquor-soaked blackouts. The new girl doesn’t want to be uncool, the son whose mother passed from cancer is easily sympathetic (Corey Fogelmanis, playing Ben’s boy), and Darrell (Dante Brown) – forgetting immediate hesitations – goes wherever booze flows. As I said, “kids will be kids.” To a fault.
Ma proves Octavia Spencer can “get jiggy” (or whatever kids say these days) with life-of-the-party villainy and berzerk mental breakdowns, but Tate Taylor’s retributive descent is too dry despite floodings of rum and light beer. Paranoia is procedural, deviousness inconsequential, and intentions painfully maddened but unserviced. One of those “in a small town, you can get away with anything” gobsmackers where townsfolk know everyone’s secrets except the psychopath wooing their children like a stranger with candy. Taylor employs primo split diopter focuses and succeeds in letting Spencer’s once-innocent loner expressively achieve inner-clique popularity, but the film’s point is made halfway through and never hurdles to a higher plateau of craziness. You’ll drink up Ma’s jungle juice, only to find a considerably less potent genre-heavy brew than anticipated.
Ma is a showcase for Octavia Spencer's ability to turn her typecasted traits into utterly disturbing obsession destabilization, but the film's less potent genre punch never lives up to its main character's psychotic allure.