Octavia Spencer shines like a fateful villain in favor of underage drinks.
The B-film's art has evolved a lot since Ed Wood's days, which can be a legitimate art for them now with the real filmmaker at the helm. Just look at such recent hits as it follows or last summer's upgrades, two movies with ridiculous rooms boasting moody atmospheres and innovative filmmaking. Then come along with director Tate Taylor's delicious bonkers Ma, a B movie that puts all the artistic things to the side and lets himself snooze from the ridiculous to the crazy and back to the ridiculous again without any real aesthetic signature.
That is, in view of other B movie successes over the last few years, Taylor could have set his sights higher than Ma's appearance. But this economically reported revenge thriller has a hell of a trump card in Octavia Spencer. Breaking the typecast Taylor helped cement with his 201
Ma goes out on something of a slow start as it introduces its teenage cast of the underwritten walking tropes. The 16-year-old Maggie (Diana Silvers) has moved back to his mother (Juliette Lewis) quiet rural hometown after being raised in LA. The manuscript sits around as it integrates her into a new group of friends, but after that it's not long before they happen over Sue Ann (Spencer) outside the wine shop as they try to get adults to buy them liquor. She agrees to ignite a relationship that turns from just a little scary to incredibly violent.
Taylor leaves this progression and escalation up to Spencer, who digs into a previously invisible pulpy side in the most delightful way to imagine. She sells aggressive FaceTime calls, begging "don't let me drink alone" with ease, proving a master to change her expression to "evil" the other no teen sees. It's just camp, and it is contagious as hell when she is on the screen. This is the kind of thriller you can laugh at as much as you do about it. And for better and worse you will do both.
There is enough self-awareness to the whole project that it is difficult not to want Taylor to think more about the actual structure of the film. There are a few moments of over-the-top gore in the sublime hoot that is the third act, but the camera more than once does not pull back far enough or cut away too early for the audience to really absorb the pig's scene for all that worth. And with Spencer in the root of all the movie's bloody chaos that is not allowed to enjoy the moments when she is at her most attentive, it feels like a tease.
However, one major problem is that Spencer's Sue Ann is basically the only sign worth seeing here. Silvers doesn't get much to work with as Maggie, and so she and the other teens, all of whom are only John Hughes style clichés, are not really sympathetic to the audience as they become Sue Ann's prey. As Maggie's mother, Lewis goes a little better, as the story eventually goes towards developing this small town's (predictably dark) backstory. The trope is so frustrating and tiring here as it is in any other lore and exposition-heavy horror flick, but Lewis takes us through it with more humanity than the rest of Ma allows.
Otherwise, most movie characters are written as if they were a more stylized, tonal live movie. As paired with a strange attempt by the actors to weave in an anti-bullying message, even though the villain becomes completely irreversible at the end, creates a confused end product that doesn't quite know what it will be. Not that Ma had to come through with a strong empowerment angle, but its mixed message is worse than if there was nothing here at all.
Told, predictable and uninteresting, as the story might be, just try not to crack a smile when Spencer really lets his talons grab the movie in his wild second half. There is plenty to giggle on throughout, and even a few moments that might just give you goose bumps. These qualities alone, despite the film's shortcomings, make Ma an almost infinitely entertaining watch.