×

Film Review: ‘Ma’

Playing an eccentric small-town stalker-pest as if she were a real human being, Octavia Spencer roots a formula thriller in something creepy.

Director:
Tate Taylor
With:
Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Allison Janney.
Release Date:
May 31, 2019

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7958736/

As the title character of “Ma,” Octavia Spencer goes at the role of a friendly-on-the-outside, crazy-on-the-inside desperate stalker-pest in a way that befits a world-class actress who has chosen to star in a pumped-up B-movie. She does all she can to play the character as a real human being, and that accomplishes two things: It puts a bit of flesh on the clever/dumb bones of this Blumhouse production — a teen-flick variation on “Fatal Attraction,” with distant glimmers of “Carrie” as well as “Misery” and other revenge-of-the-nerd stalker thrillers. At the same time, Spencer’s humanity only makes the character seem that much creepier, which is a good thing.

You can’t take “Ma” seriously. It’s a squalid formula picture that’s too busy connecting dots, hitting beats, engineering situations designed to make you squirm. But you will squirm. And though even the youngest sector of the demo for this movie will know that they’re being manipulated, they’re likely to turn out for it. The novelty and, dare I say it, the restraint of Spencer’s performance — when she’s not pulling out all the stops, though she manages to do even that in a controlled way — should prove to be enough of a lure to turn “Ma” into a minor money-maker.

In an anonymous gray scrub-brush town in Ohio, Maggie (Diana Silvers), who has just moved there with her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), finds herself hanging out with a bunch of new high-school pals in a van outside a liquor store. They keep trying, and failing, to get an adult to buy them some booze. Then Sue Ann (Spencer) comes along, walking a three-legged dog. She balks, too, but remembers her own days hanging out at the rock piles, a local teen-party spot that has all the allure of a trash dump; so she buys the kids a few bottles. The next day, she buys them a few more. Then she invites them over to her house to party in the basement.

Sue Ann, who works as an assistant for a testy veterinarian (Allison Janney), appears to be a lonely person, but it’s not as if hosting teen drinking parties in the unfinished rec room of her large home in the middle of nowhere could be called responsible behavior. Something is off, and the flashbacks to Sue Ann’s ’80s adolescence, when she was a wallflower (Kyanna Simone Simpson) who kept being approached by Ben (Matthew Welch), the hottest guy in school, tell us that Something Really Bad Happened.

Spencer, a chameleon of an actress, does mood swings in “Ma” that leave us entertainingly off guard. First she’s the cheery, warmhearted divorced loser still trying, after all these years, to ingratiate herself with the hipster-insider kids. Then she’s the middle-aged wannabe party lady who still thinks that it’s cool to dance the robot to “Funkytown.” Then she’s the noodge who blasts video-selfie invitations to all the kids’ phones, and the lusty cougar with eyes for Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), the cutest boy in Maggie’s clique, who at one point refers to Sue Ann as “ma,” and the nickname sticks. (She becomes the kids’ maternal mascot.) Then she’s the hothead forcing Andy to strip at gunpoint, then the prankster who pretends that it’s all a big joke, saying, “You think I’m Madea?”

She is also, of course, the sinister manipulator who will lace liquor shots with animal tranquilizer. And the angry psycho with a thirst for vengeance (though Spencer does it with a weirdly inviting smile). And the mother who’s a walking head case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

“Ma” was directed by Tate Taylor, who made “The Help,” which featured a brilliant (and Oscar-winning) performance by Spencer. He then grew as a director in his unjustly overlooked follow-up film, “Get On Up,” a James Brown biopic, with an extraordinary performance by Chadwick Boseman, that was my choice for best film of 2014. I think I understand why Taylor has now gone slumming. Doing a Blumhouse thriller like “Ma” is a way to shore up his commercial bona fides — and, he probably figured, to loosen up and have fun. In the age of Jordan Peele, it’s not like he’s losing credibility.

But when you’re trying to make a good movie out of a script like this one, by Scotty Landes, that’s made of derivative bits and pieces, you can wind up spinning your wheels. In “Ma,” Taylor gets bits of texture going in the early teen scenes, and in the interaction between Maggie and her mother, played by Juliette Lewis as a forlorn tough bird who’s returning to her hometown after trying to make it in San Francisco (where her marriage failed, and her career ambitions too). She’s gotten a job as a cocktail waitress at the local casino, which leaves her zero time to supervise her daughter, who is on her own, logistically and spiritually.

Diana Silvers has a coltish sincerity, and she and the other actors do what they can to fill out their roles. They’re playing glorified versions of the fresh meat in a slasher film, but Taylor shows a gift for snuff terror. Sue Ann has a hidden agenda in choosing these kids, and when she finally sets about meting out punishment, the movie makes you cringe in all the right places. And there’s one added sly element. The topic of race is barely mentioned, but when Sue Ann talks about growing up as an “outsider,” Octavia Spencer invests that with a subtext of what it meant to be the isolated black girl trying to fit into a homogenized youth culture of Middle American louts. It’s no justification for the horror she inflicts. But it does lend a bit of frisson to the explanation.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Ma'

Reviewed at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, May 28, 2019. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: A Universal Pictures release of a Blumhouse Productions, Wyolah Films production. Producers: Jason Blum, Tate Taylor, John Norris. Executive producers: Robin Mulcahy Fisichella, Octavia Spencer.

Crew: Director: Tate Taylor. Screenplay: Scott Landes. Camera (color, widescreen): Christina Voros. Editors: Lucy Donaldson, Jin Lee. Music: Gregory Tripi.

With: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Allison Janney.

More Film

  • Fernando Meirelles The Two Popes

    How Italy Entices Big-Budget Film and TV Projects to Shoot on the Peninsula

    This summer there is lots of action on the Italian peninsula. “No Time to Die, ” the latest James Bond film, is shooting amid cave dwellings in the ancient southern town of Matera, while Christopher Nolan’s latest, “Tenet,” is encamped in Ravello, a jewel overlooking the Amalfi coast. Terrence Malick is in Anzio, a central [...]

  • Thom Zimny, Bruce Springsteen and Martin

    Bruce Springsteen's Director, Thom Zimny, on the Move from 'Broadway' to 'Western Stars'

    Director Thom Zimny is due for a big September: Come Sept. 22, he’ll find out whether he’s winning an Emmy Award for directing “Springsteen on Broadway” for Netflix. Ten days before that, he’ll be at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival to premiere a theatrical feature, “Western Stars,” which he co-directed with his muse and subject, [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    Box Office: 'Angel Has Fallen' Flies to $1.5 Million on Thursday Night

    Action movie “Angel Has Fallen” has soared to $1.5 million at 2,600 North American locations in Thursday night previews. Christian drama “Overcomer” took in $775,000 during Thursday night previews at 1,563 locations. “Angel Has Fallen” has been tracking for a debut in the $12 million to $16 million range and will expand to 3,286 sites on [...]

  • Our Mothers Review

    Oscars: Belgium Sends Cannes Prizewinner 'Our Mothers' to International Feature Film Race

    Belgian-Guatemalan director Cesar Diaz’s feature debut, “Our Mothers,” will represent Belgium in the International Feature Film category at the Oscars. Represented in international markets by Pyramide, “Our Mothers” world premiered at Cannes’ Critics Week and won the Golden Camera for best first film. More Reviews Film Review: 'Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles' Film Review: 'Jacob's [...]

  • La vaca "The Cow"

    Alfredo Castro, Mia Maestro, Leonor Varela Cast in Francisca Alegria’s Debut (EXCLUSIVE)

    SANTIAGO, Chile  —  The much anticipated feature debut of Chilean Francisca Alegria, renowned for her magical short “And the Whole Sky Fit in the Dead Cow’s Eye,” has firmed up its cast and shooting dates. Argentine thesp Mia Maestro (“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn”), Chile’s Leonor Varela (“Dallas,” “Blade 2”), Alfredo Castro (“From Afar,” “Museum”) [...]

  • 210819 Distribusjonsseminar DNF

    Haugesund: Nordic Distribution Panel Analyzes Recent Success Story 'Queen of Hearts'

    HAUGESUND, Norway  —  On Wednesday morning, shortly before this year’s New Nordic Films Works in Progress screening was due to begin, a handful of industry veterans sat for a panel that picked up right where last year’s WIP program left off. Presented in collaboration with Europa Distribution, the panel – called “The Value Chain: A [...]

  • L-R Dena Kaplan, Ronny Chieng, Josh

    Rafe Spall Leads Cast of Oscar Nominated Josh Lawson's 'Long Story Short'

    Rafe Spall, whose credits include “The Big Short” and “Shaun of the Dead,” leads the cast of romantic comedy “Long Story Short.” Studiocanal will handle worldwide sales on the film, which starts to shoot on Monday in Sydney, Australia. The movie is written and directed by Josh Lawson, who was Oscar nominated last year for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content