Formulaic teen slasher films have been around for decades. Popular kids who fulfill all the tropes chased by an immortal antagonist, one who is relentless in its pursuit and thorough in its decimation of all things young and fancy free. But this time, the boogeyman is a black woman who harbors a deep-seated anger for those teens, and you’ll find her in Tate Taylor’s Ma.
Maggie (Diana Silver) has moved from San Diego to her mom Erica’s (Juliette Lewis) hometown so they can start over after her mother’s divorce. Willowy and pretty, Maggie soon picks up with a bunch of popular kids who like to hang out and drink. Looking to score some booze from a willing adult, the kids finally convince an unassuming veterinarian technician Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) walking one of her charges to buy their partying supplies. She’s concerned they’ll drink and drive, so she offers her basement for them to party on the conditions that they don’t swear, leave sober and most of all, don’t venture upstairs.
The kids, thinking she’s a little odd but ok for an old broad, decide to take her up on her offer and nickname her “Ma”. Ma’s basement soon becomes a booze can for the local teens, and she’s the life of the party until things get more than a little weird, intense and dangerous.
I’m going to try and stay spoiler-free, but Ma made me sad for many reasons. Through flashbacks, we learn that Sue Ann wasn’t a popular girl in high school and neither was I. She constantly felt like she was the butt of the joke, and I always felt that way too. Her character allowed me to feel empathy for her, but I’m also sad that most of the production team were white. The writer, Scotty Landes, hit a lot of notes well, but Sue Ann’s character ended up looking really pathetic. Could he possibly know what it was like growing up unpopular, black and female? Probably not. Perhaps he too was an outsider for whatever reason, but the Carrie-like narrative that was done well by Stephen King for instance, didn’t translate here. And trying to turn the mammy/black care-giver stereotype on its head didn’t work either. It was messy, aimless and too delicate a subject for this kind of treatment.
I’m also sad that Ma didn’t ramp up the weird. Landes is behind several episodes of Comedy Central’s Workaholics and Adam Devine’s House Party-two extremely bro-ish comedy series, and has had a brief career in stand-up comedy. He and Taylor could have pushed it to a slightly more absurd feel, like the 1973 film, The Baby. That film was disturbing, absurd and everything you need to make you squirm uncomfortably, but this isn’t the 70s, and sadly, we only find those films kitschy in hindsight. While the comedy beats were decent in Ma, I wished Landes and Tate had drawn more from the absurdity of the situation instead of straight horror with a few laughs.
Spencer’s performance was really, really good. I was a fan of hers after I saw her in Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer, and when you look at her IMDb page, there’s so much variety there, especially within genre film, that you know she’s a versatile performer. Spencer and Taylor are reportedly best friends, so there’s a mutual trust for her to give her best performance. Her emotional transitions were seamless; really putting Sue Ann’s unhinged persona center stage. I also loved Allison Janney as Sue Ann’s disgruntled veterinarian boss, in fact I feel there was a spark between Spencer and Janney that was wasted. That venom could have been central to the film, because really, who needs to see more teens in jeopardy, but Janney was only in a couple of scenes and I almost forgot she was in it.
I wonder what a black female director and writer would have done with Sue Ann’s character. It’s a shame Spencer shows her range in a starring role with complex character who doesn’t quite get the attention she deserves. If you’re set on seeing Ma, go for Spencer’s menacing performance and what I hope is her gateway in more starring roles in more genre films, but this time with a black female horror director.