Ma makes a psycho villain out of Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, and although she goes slightly against type in the process, she did serve that slice of nasty pie to Bryce Dallas Howard in The Help.
Both movies were directed by Tate Taylor, who tries his hand here at something like horror here, although Ma can barely conceal the smirk on its face, or the perverse fun it’s having letting Spencer go a little nuts in the title role.
She plays single mom Sue Ellen, nicknamed “Ma” by local high school kids because she buys them Fireball and Parrot Bay (how’s that for say-it-by-name product placement), and allows them to party in her basement.
Though Sue Ellen claims that she’s doing this in the interests of safety (she collects car keys, and doesn’t allow revelers to drive home drunk), we see there is madness in her method. Sue Ellen, seen in flashbacks as a shy teen, has never gotten over being excluded by the popular kids in high school, or humiliated by them. So she’s like Carrie on a delayed fuse, and the kids in her basement just happen to be the sons and daughters of the same people who mistreated her decades earlier.
The movie generates darkly comic suspense by showing us flashes of Sue Ellen’s weirdness, and allowing us to know more about her motives than the blotto students partying obliviously in her basement. The exception is unnerved, observant Erica (Diana Silvers), who has growing suspicions about faux-genial “Ma,” brought on by Sue Ellen’s increasingly creepy and desperate use of social media — a tool for surveillance, intelligence gathering, and clingy demands for reassurance.
The movie toggles lucidly between alternating points of view — following new-in-town Erica’s social life and home life (with single mom Juliette Lewis), and gradually revealing more about Sue Ellen’s tortured history and sinister inclinations. She works, for instance, at a local veterinary clinic, where she has an oppressive boss (Allison Janney, in a cameo) and access to all sorts of tranquilizers.
These come into play in the demented finale, in which Sue Ellen’s basement becomes what you’d expect it to become, only more so. The movie is bankrolled by Blumhouse Productions, the horror factory known for backing Jordan Peele, and also for gonzo salesmanship and marketing gimmicks.
Ma is fun for awhile, before taking up residence in the latter category. The climax is a spectacle of dog collars and other sensational (and Instagrammable) imagery. The previews for Ma showing a young woman getting her lips sewn shut gives new meaning to the phrase word of mouth.
Ma. Directed by Tate Taylor. With Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Allison Janney and Luke Evans. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parents’ guide: R (violence)