Ma is what happens when Tate Taylor – the guy who made The Help – sets out to slum it on a down-and-dirty horror movie but can’t stop himself from turning it into a halfway thoughtful drama about the emotional baggage that causes a grown woman to finally crack. So, Ma is an exploitation film in appearance but an insightful characters study in spirit. Think of it as Carrie with a racial twist and several decades between the mean high school prank and the moment the bullied girl reacts with righteous rage.
Of course, if you’ve seen the trailer you don’t have to perform any mental gymnastics to understand the movie. Save one major twist – which I won’t spoil – the entire film is in the trailer:
Octavia Spencer’s Sue Ellen, nicknamed Ma, runs into some desperate teenagers (led by Diana Silvers’ Maggie, the new girl in town) outside a liquor store, taking part in the time-honored tradition of “if we give you some money, will go in and buy us some beer?” Not only does Ma agree to be their middle man, she offers up her basement as their new party spot. Soon enough, all the teens in town are partying at Ma’s – a strange arrangement, but one which everyone seems to enjoy.
However, there’s something not right with Ma, and she can’t hide all of her secrets forever. When Maggie and Haley (McKaley Miller) break one of Ma’s cardinal rules and leave the basement during a party to go upstairs, they overhear enough shady shit to be spooked. When they try to cut Ma out of their lives, they learn that some people simply refuse to be ignored, and we the audience learn that Octavia Spencer was clearly dying to play a character like this.
Mixing one third Carrie White with one third Annie Wilkes and another third Zelda Fuller, Spencer’s Ma is a delight to behold, a kettle pot of rage forever threatening to boil over. Originally written to be a middle-aged white woman, the character was adjusted for Spencer, who has appeared in all but one of Taylor’s films and goes so far back with him that they used to actually live together as roommates for 7 years.
The level of trust they’ve built up over time is paramount to Ma’s success because it allows to Spencer to take some wild swings and show completely new sides of herself. Across projects like The Shape of Water, Gifted, Hidden Figures, and The Help, she has built up a sassy, soulful on-screen persona. Ma weaponizes this against the audience, playing on our expectations of what kind of character Spencer will play.
However, before Spencer is allowed to go full crazy the film spends its time teasing out the mystery as to what exactly is wrong with her, casually returning to a series of flashbacks which mostly boil down to childhood trauma and loneliness. She’s not some monster nor is she is some kind of revenge-obsessed mastermind. Much of what she does is simply accomplished through light social media stalking and Google searches, resulting in several hilarious scenes of her Googling things like “how to detect a tracking device in your car” while at her day job as a veterinary assistant. By the end, when Ma finally loses it you recognize that her act of revenge has gone too far but you also think that just maybe the bastards had it coming.
However, after all of that build up I did walk away feeling like the film walked right up the edge and then suddenly lost it nerve. Or maybe I felt that way mostly because the grand finale is in the trailer, meaning once you get there Ma has no real secrets left to reveal. That’s on me for watching the trailer, I guess. Or it’s on AMC for jamming it down my throat in front of everything I saw for the past 3 months. Or it’s on the Universal marketing department. Or we’re all kind of responsible. But if watched without knowing what’s coming, Ma is a smarter-than-average exploration of what happens to a woman who’s been done wrong by society one too many times.