Director: Tate Taylor
Stars: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Allison Janney
There’s an impulse while watching Ma – the latest Blumhouse horror picture to hit multiplexes – to simply reject its premise and let it tumble down. These movies have a tendency to go either way, and for every Get Out there’s a Truth Or Dare.
Initially it seems as though we may be headed toward the latter. In time-honoured tradition, Ma focuses on a group of teenagers growing up in small town America. And while casting has seen fit to actually pick actors that look as though they approximate the ages they’re supposed to be playing, these youngsters still fit the wholesome all-American profile; tiny waists, clear skin and strongly defined jawbones. You know the type.
In a risky move, Ma appears to be out to demonise another stereotype of American cinema; the kindly middle-aged black woman/house servant. Octavia Spencer plays Sue Ann; lonely dogsbody at the town veterinary clinic who gets into the habit of buying booze for our gang of bored teens. These kids – irksomely naive to stranger danger – think nothing of using her basement as their own personal youth club when she gives them an invite. Soon the place is jumping with youngsters doing shots, while Sue Ann bakes them snacks and redecorates the place, humbly playing servant as she yearns for their affections.
Its an awkward visual, as off-kilter as the group’s wilful ignorance of how unusual this proposition is. Director Tate Taylor (responsible for The Girl On The Train) accepts and even leans hard on how offbeat this set-up is, deploying a few of the tactics that have steered Jordan Peele so well. More commonly Ma goes for bad vibes over cheap thrills (though its not above at least one cheap jump scare early on).
The young cast are acceptable. Diana Silvers just got done impressing in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart and she makes new-kid-on-the-block Maggie a sympathetic lead. She’s definitely the pick of the litter. Meanwhile, Taylor has secured some disarming talents for subsidiary roles. The likes of Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans and even Allison Janney(!) pepper the sidelines as the adults who are all too easily turning a blind eye to what their kids get up to.
Ma has a fondness for one of the slasher movie’s most trusted tropes, too; the historic high-school prank that has engendered a psychotic grudge. Scotty Landes’ script hands out the pieces like breadcrumbs, but its all too easy to skip ahead and see where this is headed. There’s something pleasingly retro about that, though. Ma is a funny one; it embraces many horror conventions but just as readily goes about upending the apple cart. But even if you think you can see the train coming, you probably can’t predict just how it’s going to hit…
A pleasing dimension is how much these kids seem to care about one another, forgoing the usual obnoxious brattiness. Witness, for instance, the communal joy when Maggie and Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) make their mutual attraction official midway through. Their friends are genuinely happy for them. It’s a really nice beat.
Ma is entertaining throughout, even as the pace and tone shift gears with deliberate jerks and stutters. It’s like a faulty roller-coaster ride in that regard, but these whiplash jolts feel intentional; a judicious and successful effort to keep the viewer off balance. Spencer, for her part, is deceptively brilliant. Much as her character ricochets between moods, there’s an overarching sense of continuity to these swings in temperament. Sue Ann’s desperation, her yearning to be ‘down with the kids’, invites us to ponder on her psychopathology. Sure, flashbacks guide us to make A +B = C conclusions, but there’s still something deeply sad and knotty about the person Spencer manifests.
In the peripheries the report is a little more mixed. Janney feels wasted and her casting the most perplexing. A key sequence for Lewis’ Erica set in a casino, by contrast, almost made me wish for a whole character-driven movie centred upon her. Just when you think you might have it sussed, Ma throws these little curve-balls at you.
There’s more percolating under the hood than you might think. In spite of those early fears, Taylor doesn’t idly make Sue Ann a cookie-cutter movie monster. She’s a pitiable figure. And her closeness to the black servant role allows for reflective criticism of those who take advantage of her hospitality. That contentious “white face” scene in the third act (you’ll see) is not for nothing. And there’s something to be said for how Ma works as an essay on ‘invisible’ illnesses (all those convenient blind eyes…) and the toxicity that spreads when a person or persons are shunned by silent communal contract.
As is increasingly in vogue, Ma trades on its WTF moments to elicit your reactions. The theatre I saw it in erupted in laughter the moment the credits started, but there was barely a peep during the body of the film. To my mind that reads as a success. Ma elicits a nervous reaction and holds your attention well enough to sustain it. The ridiculousness of some aspects are part and parcel of that pact.