Filmmaker Tate Taylor reunites with his award-winning actresses Octavia Spencer (“The Shape of Water”) and Allison Janney (“I Tonya”) following their blockbuster collaboration on “The Help” back in 2011. “Ma” is something entirely different for everyone involved, especially Spencer nay-sayers who thought the Oscar winner wouldn’t have a career following Minny Jackson. The three-time Oscar-nominee is playing all sorts of crazy in this camp suspense thriller, that’s as entertaining to watch as it is unsettling. The entire film rests on Spencer’s ability to weave between the lines of insanity, affording her every uncomfortable emotional beat imaginable. “I’m not Madea,” she says at one point, waving a gun that may or may not be real. “Ma” might not explore underlying meanings or have nuanced social relevancies found in “Get Out”, but it’s equally captivating.
Maggie (Diana Silvers) has reluctantly moved back to her mother’s small Podunk town in Ohio where she is about to start a new high school. Erica (Juliette Lewis) left her childhood home in pursuit of something greater, only to end right back where she started, with a plus one. Charismatic Maggie quickly makes friends, starts dating Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) and joins the group in trying score booze from the local convenience store. They proposition local veterinary technician Sue Ann (Spencer), out walking her dog, to make the purchase. Eventually she obliges, citing her own high school memories of drinking out by the rock pile as nostalgic justification. Eventually inviting the van full of troublemakers back to her basement. She allows them to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t come upstairs. The teens quickly realize something isn’t quite right with “Ma” who wants to party and keep the youngsters around more often than they prefer.
Scotty Landes’ script may or may not have been written with Spencer in mind. It’s clear however the film has been crafted around Spencer’s association with comforting characters in past performances, to create a jolting juxtaposition for Sue Ann. Playing up the more campy aspects of the story, Spencer’s performance is intentionally uneven as this character suffers from repressed trauma. Unlike other horror genre films where the antagonist is just a villain because the movie says they are, “Ma” spends time connecting the dots to Sue Ann’s deep dive into madness. Not quite a horror movie but heavier than just a thriller, “Ma” locks onto an uncomfortable nervousness that it sustains throughout the swift running time.
Taylor’s more playful direction here with “Ma”, compared to the stiff, bland nature of “The Girl on the Train”, shows where he is more comfortable and successful. With both “The Help” and “Ma”, the use of heavy comedy is an elemental ingredient that works where his solely dramatic endeavors haven’t fared so well. While “Ma” has a few nasty surprises and certainly isn’t for the weak at heart, it’s ability to remain within the realm of plausibility throughout the story is key. “Ma” even tops the more stylized “Greta”, another recent thriller that focused on the madness of an older woman preying on teenagers. Allison Janny’s role is more of a hilarious extended cameo. “Booksmart” actress Diana Silvers and supporting actors like Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans all have their individual moments, but nothing can match Spencer’s devious grin while wearing pastel kitty cat office scrubs.
Final Thought – Octavia Spencer is deviously unhinged in this wonderfully camp-calibrated suspense thriller.