Fifteen year-old Maggie (Diana Silvers, “Booksmart”) is the new girl in a small Ohio town, recently moved from California with her divorced mom Erica (Juliette Lewis). Trying to fit in, she complies with cool kid Haley’s (McKaley Miller) demand that she ask an adult to buy them beer. But the stranger she approaches, Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), does more than that. The fortysomething vet tech says the kids can party in her basement as long as one of them stays sober, they don’t curse, they never go upstairs and they call her “Ma.”
Oscar winner Octavia Spencer slumming it in this “Carrie” crossed with “Friday the 13th” creepfest gentrifies this hoot of a horror movie directed by her former roommate and “The Help” director Tate Taylor. Scotty Landes’s script may tap genre films that have come before, but his inter-generational approach where the past informs the present combined with the psychological profiling of his boogie woman and dual mother-daughter relationships gives Taylor and his cast more to work with than the jump scare. “Ma” sneaks up on you.
At first Sue Ann just seems like an empathetic older woman who remembers drinking at the rock piles just like these kids want to do. But tell tale signs begin to mount up, even if the kids themselves don’t know she’s looked up all their Facebook pages by connecting them through the business, Hawkins Security, advertised on the white van Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) drives or witness the foreboding flashbacks to her own high school years shared with the audience. The kids begin to tease Andy about Sue Ann’s flirtatious behavior with him. When Chaz (Gianni Paolo) oversteps her boundaries in her basement, she suddenly pulls out a gun and orders him to strip, breaking out in laughter at the success of her ‘joke’ (and reminding us of Chekhov’s rule about showing a gun in the first act).
Soon she has what seems like most of Maggie’s high school class partying in her basement, Ma herself doing the robot in a newsboy cap, the center of amused attention. But when Haley’s denied access to the basement bathroom, she insists she and Maggie venture upstairs. Ma’s reaction upon finding them there is over the top, her later insistent apologies streaming into their phones as text and videos stalker-like. Ma creates an emergency meeting at the rock piles where tries a sympathy bid with a cancer diagnosis, claiming the drugs make her all kinds of crazy, but Haley notices she’s wearing a classmate’s bracelet, her own ring has gone missing and Maggie hasn’t seen her mother’s earrings since she passed out in Ma’s basement. Haley decides she and Maggie should investigate. Meanwhile we’re learning that Ma went to school with all of their parents. Andy’s dad Ben (Luke Evans) lures Sue Ann to a local pub with a friendly invitation that turns into something altogether different and Maggie is stunned to find her mom happily reminiscing with the vet tech who dropped by to check up on how their old dog Louie reacted to his shots.
Spencer could have pulled out all the looney tune stops and gone for broke with a role like this, but although she’s clearly having fun with it, she does something deeper, creating a character we care about even as we shrink away. She can clearly pass for normal, but we see the yearning for acceptance coming through just a little too desperately. When she lures a teen she’s just bought beer for to follow her and he throws his drink at her window and speeds past her driveway, her sobbing breakdown moves us. Silvers does the new girl in town thing with just the right amount of hesitant enthusiasm with her newfound friends. She and Lewis create a solid single mother, trusted daughter dynamic, Lewis creating a whole separate world for Erica. The film also stars Missi Pyle as Ben’s boozy girlfriend Mercedes, Allison Janney as Sue Ann’s boss, Dante Brown as Darrell, the fifth of Maggie’s circle, Kyanna Simone Simpson as the young Sue Ann and Tanyell Waivers as Genie, a disabled teen Maggie first meets at school.
The film’s big climax doles out all kinds of horrors, revenge styled for sins of the past (including the racial difference which made Sue Ann an outsider to begin with). Rescue arrives with a spoonful of irony. The film ends too abruptly. Let’s hope that’s not a ploy to dredge out a sequel, as this “Ma” stands well enough alone.
Robin did not see this film.
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