By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers and Juliette Lewis
Directed by Tate Taylor
Written by Scotty Landes
With MA, Tate Taylor becomes the latest director to venture from higher-toned mainstream fare into the lower-budgeted Blumhouse stable and cut loose in the horror genre. His biggest prior success was the much more genteel Southern drama THE HELP—though that was also the film in which Octavia Spencer’s Minny famously baked, um, a little something extra into her chocolate pie. Taylor brought Spencer back for the title role of MA (and returned to Mississippi to shoot it), and the two take full advantage of the opportunity to have a lot of disreputable fun.
Spencer gives her all to Sue Ann, a solitary worker in a small-town veterinary clinic where she’s frequently dressed down by her boss (a tartly funny extended cameo by Taylor’s frequent collaborator Allison Janney—with whom Spencer, coincidentally, co-starred in several episodes of TV’s MOM). She’s heading into a liquor store one day when she’s approached by teenage Maggie (Diana Silvers), who’s seeking someone to buy booze for her and her friends. Maggie, freshly arrived in town with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis—oh my, she’s playing moms now), has fallen in quickly with this small group consisting of socially aggressive Haley (McKaley Miller), Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), with whom Maggie strikes sparks, Chaz (Gianni Paolo) and Darrell (Dante Brown). Sue Ann, who doesn’t make friends nearly as easily, sees a chance to have some company at her remote house and invites the kids to hang out in her basement rec room.
On their first visit, Sue Ann, whom the group soon nicknames “Ma,” pulls a scary and demeaning “practical joke” on one of the guys; you’d think that would have them heading for the door, but it’s no big deal for these kids for whom “sick” is a term of praise. Next thing you know (here and elsewhere, some key transitional material seems to have been left on the cutting room floor), Ma’s cellar has become the hottest teen hangout spot in the county, though she maintains a particular interest in her original five guests. And that preoccupation is a lot more sinister than the teens are first aware.
Taylor and screenwriter Scotty Landes tip their hands early about Ma’s devious designs on the five, so there’s little mystery about what she’s up to. Similarly, they begin dropping in brief flashbacks to Ma’s own teenhood during the first act, and it’s easy to guess where they’re headed. (It also doesn’t help that the trailer and TV ads are full of spoilers—including one spot that quotes a review urging people to see the film before it gets spoiled for them.) Still, if there’s not much suspense to MA’s overall story progression, there are small, sometimes creepy surprises strewn throughout the movie, and key scenes that don’t necessarily go the way you expect them to.
Best of all, MA goes there when it comes to its nasty, kinky and even politically incorrect material. The movie is as much a black comedy as it is a horror film, and the fun comes from the fact that Taylor has as few compunctions about being rude as Ma herself (particularly in a very funny scene in a beauty parlor). As Ma’s fixation on the teens tips over into psychopathic anger, fueled by vengeful feelings toward one of their parents, she gets up to some explicit stuff that startles you into gasping, then laughing at how unfettered the film has become. The teens, too, are unapologetic hedonists, but remain likable as written and as performed by the talented young cast, led by Silvers, who was one of the kidnapped cheerleaders in GLASS and co-stars in the excellent BOOKSMART. One of the neat things about MA is that its potential final girl Maggie isn’t defined as a paragon of virtue; she parties hard and gets it on just like her new friends, though she’s the first to become attuned to the fact that Ma may be bad news.
And then there’s Spencer, who gets to play a wide range of emotions beyond obsessive and homicidal mania as Ma. Getting deep into this woman’s emotional fragility, cunning and eventual malevolence, Spencer enacts a fully dimensional role that manipulates the audience’s emotions as much as Ma does the kids’. She’s a horror villainess in the great tradition of Kathy Bates as MISERY’s Annie Wilkes, and while MA the film is uneven, Spencer and Taylor have conspired to make Ma the character someone you can’t take your eyes off of, and who holds the movie together.