Octavia Spencer and her director stretch their limbs into fun horror territory

Ruairí McCann on Tate Taylor’s ‘Ma’ (2019)

Ma opens to what is both a fresh start and arrested development, with teen Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) and her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) in flight from a broken marriage and dwindling finances, retreating to Erica’s decaying hometown. While her mother pays the bills as a cocktail waitress, Maggie sets out to ingratiate herself with her new environment. Which she quickly does, picking up a few new friends at school — including a love interest called Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) — who all rope her into indulging in what small midwestern town has to offer kids their age. Namely killing time cadging booze and weed. Recreation that, since they are underage, can be hit and miss. Until they meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) — a middle-aged veterinary’s assistant who seems to be unduly eager to go on beer runs to the liquor store for them. As her behaviour becomes more obsessive, and the party moves to her basement, the group’s ability to pass it off as loneliness becomes increasingly threadbare. Instead, it becomes clear that Ma (as she comes to be called) has a sinister endgame in mind.

Ma may be at its best when it is setting the scene of a community whose wells have dried up. Like for thousands of towns, local industry has collapsed and the jobs have fled, leaving in their wake a semi-urban morass. What’s left is an appropriately plain and digital landscape of dingy casinos, half dead dives, cut-rate suburban bungalows and other stretches of detritus for both young and old to drink and mill around. Astutely, director Tate Taylor makes the distinction between how the young experience the malaise versus how it defines the lives of those more senior. For while the teens may be bored out of their skulls, they still have community places like the local high school – A relatively brightly lit repository for cardboard cut-out character types (the goofball jock and the feisty and witty best friend) and an excess of matters of both the heart and the loins. It feels cut or copied straight out of your typical teen dream fare, from Power Rangers to The Breakfast Club (1985) (the John Hughes catalogue is pointedly referenced at one juncture). While for the adults any such dreams are dead. What they have instead is the ruins of their personal lives and work that is thoroughly dehumanising, with Sue Ann’s profession a perpetual starter position where she is at the beck and call of a hectoring boss (Alison Janney).

Meanwhile, Juliette Lewis is very good at taking the bubbly, nervous energy of a single parent determined to appear put together for her daughter despite to her low ebb and then translating into the lump in the throat anxiety of being cannon fodder on the frontlines of the hospitality industry. This anxiety is particularly pronounced during a scene where she has to survive the dual mortification of dealing with an unruly customer who happens to be an old schoolmate that she never thought would see her working minimum wage again. Her reaction envelops a close-up with a thicket of barely controlled tics and a cracking painted grin, while a beer precipitously sloughs across the bottom of the frame and down the tray that she is unconsciously raising like a shield.

The film revels in its status as termite art — a Farberism that has proved to be multivalent yet, in this case, refers to genre films that are modest in scale and intention as art and so are often more effective than their bloated big brothers. Clearly an important part of the project’s appeal for its two major creative forces, namely director Tate Taylor and star Octavia Spencer, for both have been outspoken in defining it as a personal and professional breath of fresh air. For Taylor, Ma was a chance to do “something fucked up” after the Kramerian social picture The Help (2011), the similarly prestigious biopic Get On Up (2014) and The Girl On The Train (2016), a genre outing couched in the safety of being an adaptation of that usually benign and middlebrow category of the book club bestseller. While Spencer’s response to Taylor sending her the script was that of eagerness in taking on the character type of ‘the obsessive or stalker’, which up to now has been mostly played by white actors (from Kathy Bates in Misery to Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female) but also to do something ‘fun’, in a break from a career in movies that often seem purpose-built to be feted.

Spencer, out of the two, holds truest to that desire. Her performance is bombastic, flicking like a switch between vulnerability — as the reasons given for her behaviour is the pain stemming from a horrific high school humiliation and abuse and the rut her life has reached — and in playing unstable and malevolent with relish. It can be seen in the increasingly demented video messages she sends to the group — “Don’t make me drink alone”, she bellows at one point. And after she turns her basement into a party house, there is a series of charmingly goofy group dance scenes through which she stalks, spins and swans through the throng of teens, flicking between being both excessively maternal and inappropriately — an extreme entanglement of motherly love and sexual aggression — that is funnier and more comfortable in its own skin than much of what can be fished from this decade’s sea of joy averse and faux-intellectual mainstream genre cinema.

Ma is showing cinemas now.

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.