Ma

maSTARS3.5There’s something so wonderful about Ma, the new horror movie starring Octavia Spencer.  I’ll be honest, it’s kind of a cheesy film.  Tate Taylor also directed The Girl on the Train which was one of my least favorite releases of 2016.  But Ma is something else entirely.  It’s a completely idiosyncratic story about a middle-aged black woman that befriends a group of mostly white teens.  She invites them over so they can have a safe place to hang out and drink.  Obviously, juveniles under the age of 21 shouldn’t be drinking but Spencer isn’t supposed to be playing an admirable person.  However, there’s a lot more to uncover here than initially meets the eye.

Ma is trashy fun.  Screenwriters Scotty Landes and Tate Taylor know exactly the kind of campy film they’re making.  So does Octavia Spencer.  It’s not great art but it is entertaining.  She plays a veterinary assistant named Sue Ann Ellington who is approached by a group of adolescents who ask her to buy alcohol for them.  Sue Ann is awkward.  She sports a hairstyle seemingly inspired by Joey Lawrence in the TV show Gimme a Break! circa 1983.  It isn’t only the way she looks, though.  It’s the way she acts.  Spencer’s identity is that of a kindly mature woman desperate to be liked.  The kids start calling her Ma and she likes the attention.  The script gives this misfit a detailed backstory recounted in flashbacks.  There are details to this character that aren’t readily apparent.  There’s a reason for her unhinged behavior.  She still harbors unresolved anger from her past.

Ma goes to places I didn’t foresee.  At first, she simply buys the kids booze, but pretty soon she’s offering up the basement in her home as a place for them to party.  Then she’s celebrating right alongside them.  That’s so unexpected.  So is the soundtrack which includes “The Safety Dance”, “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Funkytown”.  I didn’t reckon Ma would crank up the bouncy hit “September” by Earth Wind and Fire while running over a victim.  It’s refreshing to see a production where Octavia Spencer gets to be the star and the supporting cast are there to support her.  The ensemble consists of teen Maggie (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) who has just moved to the area with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis).  Luke Evans is Ben, an old high school classmate from Erica’s childhood and Missi Pyle portrays Ben’s girlfriend who can’t hold her liquor.   There’s also Allison Janney who’s highly memorable as Ma’s irritable boss.  There is literally only one note to her performance.  That sounds like a condemnation but it’s not.  Janney is hilarious.  She doesn’t have many lines but every one she utters is vicious.  This is a reunion of sorts. Janney and Spencer were in The Help together which was likewise helmed by Tate Taylor. He happens to play a police officer here.

You really have to suspend a lot of disbelief with Ma. The way these children keep going back to Ma’s house makes absolutely no sense. It almost becomes an unintentional(?) running joke.  There are so many signs that Ma isn’t quite right.  Early on she points a gun at one of the students and demands that he remove his clothes.   It’s an uncomfortable scene, but the kids inexplicably seem fine with it after she laughs it off.  Later she hugs Erica and her expression over toward Maggie goes from delighted to deranged in a half second.  That’s part of the movie’s spell.  Spencer adroitly switches from sympathetic to cruel.  I felt sorry for this woman.  Then I hated her.  Earlier this year Neil Jordan’s Greta employed a similar camp sensibility.  Ma is even less inhibited and therefore more fun.  For the majority of the picture, this is a compelling character study. Unfortunately, the drama’s final 20-minute descent into Grand Guignol is a letdown.  Yet through it all, Spencer endures as a fascinating personality.  The achievement would be a parody in a lesser actor’s hands.  Spencer extracts both pathos and absurdity from the screenplay.  The individual is cut from the same cloth as Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Piper Laurie in Carrie, and Kathy Bates in Misery.   Those may be iconic grandes dames of horror but Spencer is most definitely in the same league.

06-08-19

11 Responses to “Ma”

  1. She’s awesome, and the music choices, as you say, are great!

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  2. i felt that Octavia Spencer didn’t suit the material. Ironically she elevates the entire experience. it is trashy and the last 20 mins were unnecessary but no regrets in seeing this movie. its a character study experience.

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    • Octavia Spencer was a unique choice to play the lead. That’s part of what I loved about it.

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      • i agree. How about Juliette Lewis? what did you think about her performance?

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      • It’s a small part but she’s good. She has this “even though I’m your mom I can still be cool” vibe with her daughter.

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      • yeah, she was very convincing as that type of cool mom who knows when to be strict. the reason I asked is because the performance made me reflect on Lewis as an actress and how’s she’s been quite good in her past daring roles(for example natural born k and cape fear).

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      • I remember I first became aware of Juliette Lewis from an ABC sitcom that had only one season 1987-88. She was very young but her talent was evident. It started Daniel Hugh Kelly (Hardcastle and McCormick) & Elizabeth Peña (Rush Hour).

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      • am not sure if they ever showed that sitcom in the Philippines where i was born and raised. 1987 I think brings back memories of the Cosby show, Punky Brewster, Alf, Charles in Charge, Family Ties, Perfect Strangers, and a few other titles cant recall right now. but all those had more than one season. as for Juliette Lewis, it might have been cape fear that I first noticed her as an actress. not exactly a very appropriate role, but i thought she proved to be a real actress.

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  3. Octavia Spenser was the perfect person for this role. She had all the facial expressions I loved. It went a bit far at the end, but I liked it a lot. 3 1/2 stars

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