Ma review – Octavia Spencer kills it in creepy exploitation thriller

The Oscar winner devours her role as a lonely woman preying on a group of teenagers in a patchy yet mostly entertaining cross between Carrie and Misery

There’s a great deal of fun to be had hanging out with Ma, a nasty yet surprisingly empathetic slab of exploitation with more than just carnage on its mind. There are shades of early 90s psycho thrillers, of the Single White Female/Hand That Rocks the Cradle mould, as well as echoes of Misery and Carrie, a film that follows a well-beaten path yet does so proficiently, a B-movie made with mostly A-grade skill.

The titular terror is a lonely veterinarian’s assistant, played by Octavia Spencer, a middle-aged women still haunted by a traumatic high school experience. Her solitary life suddenly takes a surprise left-turn when she encounters a group of teens, headed up by wide-eyed new girl Maggie (Diana Silvers), who ask her to buy them alcohol for an illicit party. She reluctantly agrees and after some casual Facebook stalking, develops an idea: the kids can drink in her basement if they promise to avoid the rest of her house. But while the initial arrangement works like a charm for both sides, providing the teens with a place to drink without rules and Ma some much-needed company, her intensity soon gets out of control.

Ma is a curious match of director and material with Tate Taylor, known for glossy, rather anonymous mid-budget Oscar bait such as The Help, Get On Up and The Girl on the Train, getting down and dirty with Blumhouse, the hit-making genre house behind The Purge and Get Out. It mostly works, too, with Taylor’s dramatic experience helping to add weight to schlocky material, allowing depth to how we see Ma as a victim as well as a villain. Taylor and Spencer are long-term friends (the pair lived together for seven years) and he decided the character, originally written as white, would be perfect for her, an incisive casting choice that pays off handsomely.

It’s a thrill to see Spencer given a role she can really devour because despite winning one Oscar and being nominated for two more, she has often been stuck in repetitive support territory. While the high schoolers might ultimately have more screen time, this is inarguably her show, and it’s an extraordinarily well-calibrated performance, Spencer effortlessly pulling the strings, in perfect control of how we perceive her from scene to scene. She flips between embarrassing to awkward to creepy to funny to vulnerable with invisible ease, garnering our sympathy before encouraging our repulsion. In one particularly strong scene, after being hoodwinked by some callous teens, she sits back in her car and weeps and it’s crushing, a rare moment of humanity for someone capable of sickeningly violent acts. She might have been rightly recognised for elevating arguably one-note characters in The Help, Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water, but her work here deserves far more adulation, despite the trashier territory.

Throughout the film, we’re offered flashbacks to Ma’s time at high school, leading up to a cruel prank that helps to shape who she later becomes. It’s unusual within this genre to see abuse treated with such care and as in the aforementioned adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, we see how the untreated after-effects of bullying can lead to chaos. There’s a connection between Ma and the kids she preys upon, offspring of the kids who mistreated her at the same age and there’s a sadness to how Ma can’t decide whether she wants to be part of the group or destroy them, a youth violently ripped from her that she desperately wants back.

Octavia Spencer and Luke Evans in Ma.
Octavia Spencer and Luke Evans in Ma. Photograph: Anna Kooris/AP

But while the film does toy with weightier issues, it’s mostly content with being a fun Friday night thrill-ride, and without relying on too many clumsy jump scares, it’s effective. The buildup might be familiar to anyone even half-versed on the genre but the script is well-paced and there’s enough uneasiness, such as Ma’s blatant sexual interest in teenage boys, to maintain our interest. There’s this compelling streak of perversity running throughout, from Taylor’s decision to lean into small-town grotesquery to some inventive last act gore, that differentiates it from the pack and from recent sanitised attempts to revive the 90s psycho thriller, such as The Intruder and The Perfect Guy.

The high schoolers are mostly forgettable, bar a striking turn from Booksmart star Silvers, but there are some juicier roles for the adults, including a vampy Missi Pyle, a menacing Luke Evans, a bitchy Allison Janney and a wonderful Juliette Lewis, giving ever so much to her small role as a concerned single mother. There is, however, a discordance that does prove increasingly distracting as despite Taylor wanting to ground a lot of the pulpy mayhem, he’s also content to rely on dim-witted 80s slasher movie decision-making. As the film progresses, characters become pawns, often acting in laughable ways simply to push the plot forward and the script, from Workaholics writer Scotty Landes, quickly descends into stupidity. It’s a shame as by the time we reach the overwrought finale, investment has diminished and so has interest, the film evaporating when it should be boiling over.

But Spencer works hard to keep us on her side and it’s her messy, melancholic character work that endures, a portrait of a woman broken and breaking those around her that’s really quite hard to shake. Ma is a few more drafts from perfection but the actor playing her is the real deal.

  • Ma is released on 31 May


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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