Many among us — no need for a show of hands — spent a part of high school relying on the generosity of acquaintances old enough to buy things we ourselves could not. The cool sister in college; the Wooderson, eager to get freshman girls tipsy; the lenient, probably misguided parent. Many of us wound up in the homes of sketchy strangers, made dumb decisions because we had friends around us. So it’s not deal-breakingly hard to accept when five teenagers follow a middle-aged woman to her basement in Tate Taylor’s Ma, lured by booze and a cop-free place to enjoy it. And it wouldn’t be hard to believe they’d return to that house, in a film that demonstrated any familiarity with the way human beings behave. Ma is not such a film. It quickly spins its shaky premise off into an unconvincing study of emotional need and an even harder-to-believe revenge thriller. Unsatisfying as a psycho-killer vehicle for Octavia Spencer, it may pull some genre fans in for opening week but is unlikely to leave them buzzing.
Unlikely to keep either teens or their parents up at night.
Diana Silvers (a supporting player in the far superior May release Booksmart) stars as Maggie, who has just moved with her single mom, Erica (Juliette Lewis), from California to the small town where Erica grew up. In no time, she’s subject to broadly drawn peer pressure at her new school. “You don’t vape?” a kid asks incredulously, as if in a cotton-candy-flavored Reefer Madness for the Juul generation.
Agreeing to go to a party with Haley (McKaley Miller) and a trio of boys, she instead finds herself in a van with no destination but Drunksville. The kids park outside a liquor store to ask strangers for favors, and are met with a suspiciously uniform string of insulting rejections. The only passerby who seems human is Spencer’s Sue Ann, a vet’s assistant who actually remembers being in the kids’ shoes. Still, she gently refuses to buy them liquor — until she gets a look at the van they’re driving and realizes that it’s owned by a local contractor (Luke Evans’ Ben). She buys the booze, sends the kids off to a well-known spot to drink it, then looks Ben up online and tells him his son Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) is breaking the law.
Bizarrely, when the police soon descend on them, saying they were called by Ben, the youths don’t draw the only possible conclusion, that Sue Ann narced. Instead, they ask her to buy for them again, and follow blithely when she insists they drink in her basement. Told they can have their run of the place so long as they don’t venture upstairs, they do what any grateful kids would do: One dude gives her an insulting nickname, Ma; another steps up to her in Bro Intimidation Mode to suggest ways the basement might be made more welcoming.
While tangential scenes observe Maggie’s mom in some demeaning encounters with old schoolmates, the film follows the transformation of Sue Ann’s basement into the town’s underage hotspot, the older woman playing happy mascot to innumerable partiers. Meanwhile, a series of short flashbacks show a lonely Sue Ann in high school — fragments we know are building toward some kind of traumatic event.
As the script doles out unlikely indignities and has the kids miss a string of I’m-a-stalker warning signs, it observes a distracted Sue Ann at the veterinary clinic, where her impatient boss (Allison Janney) all but invites her to steal horse tranquilizers and other psychopath-friendly gear. (Seeing the excellent Janney in this one-note bit part makes no sense until you recall that she, like Spencer, starred in Taylor’s Oscar-baiter The Help.)
The plot grows lurid in a Gothic, buried-secrets fashion, then dives into straightforward torture porn. This might be a forgivable opportunity for Spencer to swing for the fences, hamming it up in hopes her character will become a cult favorite. But she plays things as straight as the film allows, and the only hint of self-aware camp in the picture arrives after Sue Ann’s first kill: Having just dispatched someone we’re happy to see go, she turns on the radio and hears Earth, Wind & Fire croon blissfully about dancing in September.
The kind of song that generates instant nostalgia at high school reunions, the hit delivers easy irony as Sue Ann sets out to avenge her high school suffering by punishing kids who’ve done nothing to deserve it. Nothing, that is, but be the kind of paper-thin, unbelievably stupid fictional constructs lazy exploitation flicks require.
Production companies: BH, Wyolah Films
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Luke Evans, Allison Janney
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenwriter: Scotty Landes
Producers: Jason Blum, John Norris, Tate Taylor
Executive producers: Robin Mulcahy Fisichella, Octavia Spencer
Director of photography: Christina Voros
Production designer: Marc Fisichella
Costume designer: Megan Coates
Editor: Lucy Donaldson, Jin Lee
Composer: Gregory Tripi
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Rated R, 99 minutes