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
Theres 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 veterinarians 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 Taylors 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.
Its 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 stuck in repetitive support territory. While the high schoolers might ultimately have more screen time, this is inarguably her show, and its 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 its 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, were offered flashbacks to Mas time at high school, leading up to a cruel prank that helps to shape who she later becomes. Its unusual within this genre to see abuse treated with such care and as in the aforementioned adaptation of Stephen Kings Carrie, we see how the untreated after-effects of bullying can lead to chaos. Theres a connection between Ma and the kids she preys upon, offspring of the kids who mistreated her at the same age and theres a sadness to how Ma cant decide whether she wants to be part of the group or destroy them, a youth violently ripped from her that she desperately wants back.