‘Ma’: Spencer is a terrific villain, but she’s stuck in a clunky story
Directed by: Tate Taylor
Written by: Scotty Landes
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, and Luke Evans
Erica (Juliette Lewis) and her high school-aged daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers) drive towards a small-town destination, and a single-stack nuclear power plant looms over the endless acres of leafless, dormant trees. Little did they know that their lives would soon blow up, after Erica decided to move back to her hometown and into a modest three-bedroom ranch that sits on a dead end street.
They should have been more attentive to the figurative and literal warning signs that bad times lie straight ahead.
“Ma” does not refer to Erica, a recent divorcee who truly attempts to keep a positive outlook, while working long hours as a cocktail waitress at a local casino. No, “Ma” is Sue Ann Ellington, an easily-distracted, middle-aged veterinary assistant. She would rather gaze at her phone than prep and pamper the four-legged patients. At least the “Ma” casting directors called Allison Janney to play Sue Ann’s boss, so she can hilariously insult and badger our bored title character.
Outside the office, Sue Ann stumbles upon Maggie and her new friends in front of a convenient store. She buys alcohol for these underage kids, and somehow - that under no circumstances is explained – runs into them on a different day, repeats a similar purchase and convinces the gang to drive to her home in the sticks and drink booze in her basement.
Didn’t anyone teach these teens to avoid talking to strangers, let alone willingly party in an unknown person’s basement?
Well, Sue Ann’s intentions – despite smoke screens of pizza rolls and 70s disco music - are less than charitable, and one would be very generous to call “Ma” a good horror film. It’s not, and instead, director Tate Taylor – who worked with Spencer in “Pretty Ugly People” (2008) and “The Help” (2011) - heavily leans on her to act like a psycho in order to camouflage the fact that the narrative doesn’t really work as a full-length feature. One of the chief problems is that no teenagers – no matter how desperate for alcohol – would go back to Ma’s house to party again and again and again. The teens – led by Haley (McKaley Miller), Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) and others – tend to (mostly) shrug off that Ma doesn’t let the kids go upstairs, reveals frequent, angry mood swings and even points a gun at one of them in plain sight during their first visit.
It’s not believable that most of the kids ignore these omens. Well, sometimes they actually wise up! They do stand firm! They do opine that Ma’s place is now off-limits, but then backtrack on their decrees a short while later, sporting excuses that it’s so-and-so’s birthday, so let’s celebrate at Ma’s!
Perhaps the film would work much better, if it transpired over just one fateful night, with a false welcome and a slow descent into booby traps and madness. Instead, writer Scotty Landes drags the film over several days and devises a backstory that references shades of “Carrie” (1976), “Misery” (1990) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999) with a pinch of dread, but no real terror. The only tension stems from about a half-dozen (and brief) jump scares and one admittedly stressful search by Maggie and Haley in Sue Ann’s home.
Looking back, the nuclear power plant premonition does come to fruition in another way, because the movie’s last seven minutes mechanically blow up into nonsense. On the bright side, now we know that Spencer can play a very believable nutcase…for 92 minutes in this 99-minute movie.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.