The most talked-about (and perhaps the most frustrating) term in the horror world as of late is “elevated.” Granted, good horror films have always been smart and full of big ideas. Recently, wider audiences are starting to catch on thanks to the likes of Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, Jennifer Kent, and Robert Eggers. These, and other young filmmakers, blend precise technique with high-level execution for a weighty, memorable experience.
Tate Taylor ain’t concerned with none of that shit. Not this time, at least. After attempting a dark, moody, and perhaps overly serious thriller in The Girl On The Train, he turned the dial in the opposite direction for Ma. The result? A gleefully over-the-top, delightfully deranged horror romp straight outta 1998, anchored by an unchained Octavia Spencer in the titular role. After all, who needs elevation when you can party in the basement?
Shot and produced in Taylor’s native state, Ma follows a mother and daughter as they move from sunny San Diego to a suffocating small-town in Mississippi. Maggie doesn’t have much trouble making new friends at school. Meanwhile Erica can’t seem to avoid running into old friends in the town where she grew up.
Things take a turn when Maggie and her new friends run into Spencer’s character, Sue Ann Ellington, while trying to bribe adults to buy them liquor and beer. While Sue Ann is hesitant at first, she quickly befriends the teenagers and invites them to drink in the basement of her own home. After sprucing things up a bit, and adopting the new moniker of “Ma,” Sue Ann is soon running the hottest underage drinking spot in town.
From this point forward, the less you know, the better. Spencer is essentially the conductor on a twisted train ride straight to hell. It’s a joy to watch her oscillate back and forth between heartless and sympathetic (although aided by a few lackluster flashbacks) while chewing extra helpings of scenery all the way down. It’s the sort of performance you might expect when a three-time Oscar nominee is catapulted into a B-movie with a budget.
Spencer’s most notable costar here is Juliette Lewis, who plays Erica. An Academy Award nominee in her own right (and no stranger to playing up the crazy), Lewis is perfectly cast, somewhat against type, as the straight-laced mother of the film’s protagonist (played by newcomer Diana Silvers). She shines in the moments she’s given. Silvers shows promise as well in spite of a largely forgettable young cast (save for perhaps Tanyell Waivers). There’s also a fun cameo from a notable actress that doesn’t show up in the trailers.
The cast does most of the heavy lifting here, and for good reason. The script is nothing to write home about. Outside of some fun lines from Spencer and a commitment to going the distance, it’s otherwise passable. In addition, the cinematography from Christina Voros is largely utilitarian. The camera is more concerned with moving the plot along than ending up in a One Perfect Shot tweet. Even the locations aren’t much to speak of—this film could’ve used a couple extra doses of Mississippi, frankly.
But none of that is too important when you’re having a good time, right? And that’s exactly what Ma is—a crowd-pleaser designed for large, active audiences. It’s a film that knows exactly what it is, not to mention one with a few tricks up its sleeve. If you came to party, you’ve come to the right place.
Ma is in theaters everywhere Thursday, May 30, 2019.
Octavia Spencer Brings the Party in the Delightfully Demented ‘Ma’ [Review]
Director Tate Taylor channels his muse Octavia Spencer once again to deliver an off-the-wall horror party in small-town Mississippi.