The last time Octavia Spencer and director Tate Taylor teamed up it was for the shit-pie eating opus, THE HELP. Spencer walked away with a very much deserved Oscar and Taylor became a bonafide successful filmmaker. In their second collaboration, instead of tackling racism and servitude they created their version of CARRIE.
In MA, Octavia Spencer stars as Sue Ann, a loner who keeps to herself in her quiet Ohio town. One day, she is asked by Maggie, a new teenager in town (Diana Silvers, BOOKSMART), to buy some booze for her and her friends, and Sue Ann sees the chance to make some unsuspecting, if younger, friends of her own. She offers the kids the chance to avoid drinking and driving by hanging out in the basement of her home. But there are some house rules: One of the kids has to stay sober. Don’t curse. Never go upstairs. And call her “Ma.” But as Ma’s hospitality starts to curdle into obsession, what began as a teenage dream turns into a terrorizing nightmare, and Ma’s place goes from the best place in town to the worst place on earth.
On the surface, MA plays as a cautionary tale about teen drinking and indulgence. MA’s basement becomes the “cool” spot not only for the five main teens, but seemingly, the entire high school. However, as her interaction with the main group intensifies the audience realizes what they’re actually watching is a revenge flick. Sue Ann’s adolescence was arrested by traumatizing bullying she suffered from her classmates. While not directly called out, racism also seemed to have had its hands in the trauma. Even as an adult she’s constantly belittled by everyone from her boss (an almost unrecognizable Allison Janey) to the townsfolk. Sue Ann lives in a small town full of adults who peaked in high school but weren’t aware those days were over. Her life is a never-ending series of sitting at the cool kids’ table only for them to grab their trays and leave once she sits down. Ma is an “other” in a town full of carbon copies. This is what makes her such a captivating character. Like Carrie White (from CARRIE of course) her “otherness” makes her the target of derision from everyone around her. I personally can’t think of a better movie to open at the top of Pride Month. Like a lot of us queers know, this level of systemic bullying isn’t something that’s easy to get over and sticks with you like honey well into your adult years.
Is Ma a villain? The answer isn’t very simple. The traumatization she experienced as a teen is imprinted on her like a tattoo and she carries it with her through her experiences as an adult. As one of her former bullies explained “We were just kids!” her responding “so was I!” forces the bully (and the audience) not to indulge this throw-away excuse for not understanding her rage. While the third act takes this movie from thriller to straight up horror (in the best possible way) it still doesn’t allow you to answer if Ma is a true villain or not. Sure, she does some very fucked up and murderous things along the way but we see that she never dealt with her early distress and just passed it along (in a twist I don’t want to reveal).
Octavia Spencer gives a multi-layered performance that will be studied for years. Her eyes can go from the joyous glee of a high school girl being asked to prom to murderous rampage in seconds and the relatability she brings to the role makes her performance as Sue Ann that much more terrifying. The remaining cast is also strong. Juliet Lewis plays the laid back yet no-nonsense mother to Maggie, while Luke Evans brings the high school bully turned adult bully alive without making him a caricature. Missie Pyle and McKaley Miller play the before and after versions of the high school bad-girl and were the most enjoyable characters aside from Sue Anne. Unfortunately, the guys in the high shool clique were mostly one-note. There’s the jock, there’s the not-quite sensitive boy who demeans women and the black guy who, unfortunately, isn’t given anything to serve the story other than providing a black face in the crowd.
MA is a fun movie that is better than it’s premise allows it to be. Thanks to Octavia Spencer’s performance and Tate Taylor’s polished direction this is a quirky story that becomes a low-key character study on the effects of suffering and childhood bullying. I wouldn’t want this movie cheapened by a string of sequels but I’m all for seeing Spencer headline a horror franchise as the complicated villain… or villain?
*** out of 4 stars