Director: Tate Taylor
Writer: Scotty Landes
Producer: Jason Blum, Tate Taylor, John Norris
Stars: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Tanyell Waivers, Allison Janney
A lonely woman befriends several teenagers by hosting secret parties at her house, but one girl suspects the woman may have sinister motives.
Typically when the term “camp” applies to entertainment, we think along lines of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Adam West’s Batman, or Met Gala fashion. Pieces of pop culture commonly called campy usually promote outward outrageousness, knowingly parodying ridiculousness while simultaneously celebrating silliness.
“Ma” qualifies as camp, except its absurdity sneakily hides beneath a disguise that dresses it up as a throwback thriller designed to make midnight movie fans howl. It’s weird. It’s wicked. It’s funny. It’s frightening. It’s delightful schlock that’s practically perfect as subversive, subdued sensationalism for anyone with a sick or a slick sense of humor.
16-year-old Maggie finds herself in Ohio for the first time. Maggie’s mother Erica on the other hand, is all too familiar with her Podunk hometown. Erica had to move their two-person family back there with her tail between her legs following an unfortunate divorce.
Unlike most movie teens in this situation, Maggie doesn’t have to fight to make new friends. The popular pack immediately invites Maggie into their clique, no application required.
Being in the middle of the Midwest, there isn’t much for Maggie and her newfound besties to do but drink. Step One involves procuring alcohol. That’s where Ma comes in. Ma, whose real name is Sue Ann, meets the desperate kids outside a local liquor store and graciously agrees to buy their booze. What the teens don’t know is Ma also secretly snitches to one boy’s father, which busts up their party pronto.
Ma poses a solution to the group’s accommodation problem. Why not party at her place? Maggie raises an eyebrow at the offer, but what teen could pass on a private basement where everyone can drink, dance, and be dumbasses in relative peace? Ma even imposes responsible rules like no drunk driving, no taking the Lord’s name in vain, and definitely no snooping upstairs.
Word gets out that Ma’s is the place for area high schoolers to let loose. In turn, Maggie’s worries rise that a middle-aged woman hosting fetes for teenage strangers isn’t exactly normal. Maggie is more right than she realizes. Ma has ulterior motives that eventually knock down domino lines ending in interlocking revelations, sadistic torture, and a revenge plot like only a comic book villain could convolutedly cook up.
You’d be right to respond with a spit take to an assertion that Octavia Spencer, the award-winning actress who has featured in such Oscar darlings as “The Help,” “Hidden Figures,” and “The Shape of Water” (review here), delivers her most engrossing performance in a loony B-movie that, under trashier hands, could have been a cautionary fable-of-the-week alongside a “Social Media Murder” or “I Married a Maniac” movie on Lifetime. But she does. Spencer’s unique talent for flipping warm smiles into hands-on-hips “mmm-hmms” suits the titular antagonist to a T. Where the rest of us have to pass a hand over our faces first, Spencer flawlessly melts between facets of a deliciously mischievous weirdo that easily wins our attention because of how completely she commits herself to Ma’s craziness.
Octavia Spencer singlehandedly makes the movie worth watching. Her presence instantly elevates everyone around her too, spurring young actors to stand on tiptoes where they can peek above stereotyping to put in enjoyable performances as largely unenjoyable teens. In particular, Diana Silvers turns Maggie from routine teen heroine, often indistinguishable from one Blumhouse project to the next, into one of the more personable people seen in this sort of movie.
The cast greatly improves screenwriter Scotty Landes’ basic characterizations. Maggie’s mother Erica exists almost exclusively to provide excuses for why Maggie is frequently left alone. But Juliette Lewis takes meager material and shapes up a compelling single mom you might wish to see more of purely for Lewis’ panache, even though “Ma” occasionally regards Erica like her inclusion inconveniences plot progression.
Normally, I’d bemoan a movie misusing Allison Janney in what is a cameo for her as Ma’s veterinarian boss, but would be an appearance as an extra for anyone else. Eventually, viewers will forget she is even in “Ma.” That’s part of the brilliance in the movie’s slyness. Director Tate Taylor cheekily puts an Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar winning actress in a three-line role literally anyone could play specifically so he can throw her away. Janney is in on the joke, no doubt taking the job to help highlight how “Ma” irreverently eschews expectations by making a mainstream movie according to drive-in movie formula.
“Ma” doesn’t flaunt its farcical fantasy with brightly colored comedy or flamboyantly realized characters. Tone toes a subtle line where actors play straight men to a story providing punchlines through implied insanity. Pairing the premise’s inherent improbability with stone cold seriousness puts a sublimely dark cloud of humor over the horror of mutilation, castration, dog blood transfusions, and unsettling obsessions connected to traumatic childhood humiliations.
Story structure snafus conjure some quibbles. Erica’s “why is he here again?” co-worker Stu stinks of editing room tomfoolery reconfiguring his role into inconsequence. And other than being convenient for the script, how does a certain someone not immediately recognize the only black woman it seems like this tiny town has ever seen? The thing is though, “Ma’s” spirited self-awareness limits such issues to sand grain size. The gleeful good time prevents problems from growing into truly meddlesome pebbles in the movie’s shoe.
“Ma” maintains a steady stream of suspense by being mildly wild enough that it can keep several surprises secret longer than normal. It’s not exactly unpredictable, but it’s not pedestrian either.
“Ma” wears next to nothing on its sleeve, refusing to announce itself as outlandish and opting instead to allow invested viewers to figure it out for themselves. With Octavia Spencer anchoring every tangent to her immensely enigmatic engine, the movie’s mean streak complements campiness in a manner most often reserved for more traditional exploitation efforts. Make no mistake, “Ma” has a similarly sinister pedigree, and the fact that it isn’t overtly obvious only adds to its odd charm.
Review Score: 85