Ma is the Octavia Spencer movie 2019 deserves. The latest Blumhouse horror film, directed by Tate Taylor (The Help, The Girl On The Train) is completely absurd (teenagers using Facebook!) — but then again, so is our current reality. Watching the Oscar-winner wielding a needle and thread as she gleefully sews a teenage girl’s lips just feels like the new normal.
Her performance is genuinely magnificent to behold. It’s campy, outrageous, sometimes terrifying, and always compelling. The movie, on the other hand, is a mess. But it’s such a fun one to watch that it would be a shame to miss out. This is the movie of the summer, one to see after a day spent sipping cocktails with friends.
Ma opens with Maggie (Booksmart breakout Diana Silvers) and her mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) moving back to the latter’s suburban hometown after a messy divorce. With Erica busy at work learning the casino business, Maggie is free to roam with her new friends: Haley (McKaley Miller), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), Darrell (Dante Brown), and crush Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). And in this town, that means trying to get an adult to buy them booze before heading to the abandoned rock piles to get wasted.
It’s in the pursuit of this noble goal that they meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a lonely veterinarian's assistant who thinks befriending the group might be the key to resolving a lingering trauma from her past. So, when the teens’ regular spot gets busted by the cops, Sue Ann offers to host their parties in her basement, where she’ll at least know they’re safe. Hence, her nickname, “Ma,” which she embraces with gusto as her house becomes party central for all the neighbourhood kids. It soon becomes quite clear that there’s something a little off about this seemingly affable lady. But by the time Maggie and her friends realise it, it might be too late.
It’s interesting that Ma comes out on the heels of Booksmart, an admittedly very different movie that nonetheless touches on a similar point: Our high school experiences are formative, for better or worse. But while Booksmart’s protagonists remedy their lack of a social life with one wild night before graduation, Sue Ann’s high school experience with the popular kids is more tragic. And without spoiling it, let’s just say that vengeful plots have been built on far less emotional depth.
As far as pacing goes, Ma is a wild ride. The film jumps from regular, everyday scenes of teen courtship to a standoff at gunpoint, during which Ma orders Chaz to strip, in a blink of an eye. And I haven’t even mentioned the Mommy Dead and Dearest plot twist, or the Breakfast Club-style flashbacks to the ‘80s.
It only even sort of works because of Spencer’s astonishing ability to keep us on edge, always wondering how she’ll react to a given moment. It’s a joy to see her let loose with this kind of unhinged energy, in a role that runs counter to her usual, more staid fare. (Bring on The Witches!)
Though the rest of the cast always appears to be catching up to her, there are some memorable supporting performances. Allison Janney has a sublime cameo as Sue Ann’s boss who is constantly asking her to get the phone, and a particular appendage of Luke Evans' makes an unforgettable appearance. (Prosthetic or not, your jaw will drop.)
Scotty Landes’ script is wonky at best, and some of the dialogue is so laughably bad that the audience in my screening did just that. They howled; they screamed; they gasped; and they laughed some more. At some point, someone literally yelled “No!” in complete disbelief. But never did I get the sense that anyone in that room was having a bad time.
Above all, this is a movie that’s screaming to be memed. You just know that video Ma sends from her basement of her chanting “Don’t make me drink alone,” over and over again is destined to appear on group threads every summer Friday from now on. And though I can’t exactly say this movie is good, I will highly recommend it to everyone I know without hesitation.
"Ma" hits UK cinemas on May 31