Octavia Spencer steps into some very different shoes in Tate Taylor’s physiological horror Ma and shines as she does, showing off some serious horror talents. As to be expected from Blumhouse Productions, Ma brings some fresh faces to the screen and doesn’t mind exploring darker territories. However, with a script that is more than a little unpolished, Ma never manages to reach any real heights of horror or humanity.
Social outcast Sue Ann (Spencer) works a dead-end veterinarian job, lives in the middle of nowhere, and continues to struggle with past-traumas of childhood bullying. When confronted by the children of those very bullies, including innocent new girl Maggie, wild girl Hayley, and the sweet and sober Andy, she agrees to buy them alcohol for their illegal gathering and soon begins to pull the strings of these naive kids. After a short time, and lots of alcohol later, Sue Ann’s basement becomes the hub for underage partying, earning her the nickname Ma. Yet her fascination with the young boys she comes into contact with, a growing obsession with the core group of friends, and her increasingly chaotic dependence on them slowly begins to build.
It is certainly an interesting premise; you can’t blame these young, dumb and fun-hungry kids for taking up the offer of ‘anything except drink-driving goes’. But there is no sense of disbelief on the part of the teens making it hard to sympathise with them; not one person comments on how strange or bizarre it is that this middle-aged woman is doing shots with 16-year-olds. Considering the self-awareness the film has elsewhere, it’s a shame they couldn’t manage it here. The dumb teen antics and stereotype-heavy characters entertain and even hold tight against the pervasive tension that comes from Ma’s increasingly erratic behaviour. Weirdly, Ma is budget B-movie meets Stephen King (with the split focus and all).
While the teens themselves are generally forgettable despite their dominance in screen-time — with the focus of Diana Silver’s sweet Maggie being an exception simply due to her role as the protagonist — it really is Octavia Spencer who makes this film interesting to watch. Though her backstory is clumsily delivered in John Hughes styled flashbacks with soft edges and pastel colouring, Spencer manages to bring some sympathy and a lot of fun (albeit perverse fun) to Sue Ann. It is through her that the pulpiness is truly felt and when that happens the film takes on a different life - one that is ready to poke fun at itself and its genre.
Spencer cannot, however, make-up for the excessive narrative issues that litter the film. Ma’s script is so rushed that weeks are mistaken for days, leaving the audience lost and further distancing them from the characters who go from strangers to best-friends in the space of a minute-long sequence. Ma’s motivations, along with the unusual treatment of the effects of bullying, are muddled, leaving you with a sour taste as the final act leaps into graphic body horror violence without so much as a warning.
At times, Ma can be a lot of fun and will certainly rouse both jumps and laughs. A strong premise that is not held up by the product, Spencer carries this film on her shoulders and goes far in her efforts to keep it aloft. Ma throws a lot of genres at the wall and very few stick, but for those who enjoy a Blumhouse horror, there is entertainment to be found.
Ma opens nationwide in UK cinemas today.