What should Hollywood do for an accomplished thespian with well over a hundred acting credits, an Academy Award, and an unshakeable reputation for commitment no matter how minor the role? It can give her a horror movie, and let her remind us why longevity has always been on her side. To remind the industry of her unwavering contributions to the craft since debuting as a nurse in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 crime drama, A Time to Kill. And quite frankly, to once again remind the world that Black women DO THIS, all of it, extremely fucking well.
Ma is Octavia Spencer’s long overdue solo moment in the spotlight. Top billing, front and center, no plus ones. In Blumhouse’s latest horror sensation, Spencer steps into Sue “Ma” Ann’s shoes as a lonely veterinary assistant with a deep-seated infatuation for the high school scene in a sleepy Ohio town. Sue Ann’s focus zeroes in on one particular group of cool kids after they ask her to buy them alcohol. Reluctant, yet seemingly curious about the machinations of today’s youth, she caves and boxes up an absurd amount of booze for five teenagers driving a security van. One thing leads to another and these unsuspecting kids find themselves a new host for their ill-advised weekend plans.
Sue Ann’s first house guests in what seems like years come with unsolicited teenage advice on how “Ma” should deck out her basement with Urban Outfitter string lights and pong tables. Driven by her unexplained, yet obvious need to fit in, Ma takes the recommendations to heart and transforms her seedy basement into a hot speakeasy for rebellious partiers. As with all obviously bad ideas, the fun comes to a screeching halt when Ma’s obsession for Maggie (Diana Silvers), the group’s new girl, and Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), her boyfriend, ignites a mean-spirited but warranted “block Ma” campaign across town. Unfortunately for the gang, Ma’s parties have become a household name. Ghosting her won’t be easy and it comes with life-threatening consequences. Small town lifestyle, might not make it type of shit.
This isn’t Octavia Spencer’s first time at the horror rodeo. She had a small bit in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell (which celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this week) and a gnarly encounter with Michael Myers in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II. Now she’s the genre’s newest nightmare.
She reteams with Tate Taylor, who helmed The Help, which led to her first Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress, as well as the James Brown biopic Get on Up. With Ma, they use their previous experience to their advantage giving Spencer the room to fully absorb this character and make it her own. Spencer delivers a fun, charismatic, and expectedly flawless performance in an otherwise by-the-book revenge thriller.
Certainly not one that warrants its own anti-spoiler campaign. If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you know Sue Ann shares a troubled past with both Maggie’s mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) and Andy’s father Ben (Luke Evans) that inevitably reveals her sinister intentions. Where Ma wins with Spencer, a fun premise, campy writing, emphatic performances from the kids, fun thrills, and the ever-great Allison Janney, Ma loses with a painfully surface-level revenge plot that makes little sense in theory and even less in execution.
It’s not a deal-breaker by any means. If I had to formulate a rough, on-the-spot Blumhouse ranking, Ma rests comfortably in the upper half. But it is a bit frustrating that this promising outing couldn’t transcend genre tropes and half-hearted assessments of PTSD. Even more, what it suggests about women who experience serious trauma at the hands of men in 2019 is audaciously daft. It’s frustrating that, even in the smallest degree, it failed to completely rise to a what is no doubt a momentous occasion for its leading star. Minor adjustments could’ve given this quirky story a sharp left turn without notice instead of a small bend in the road we saw coming miles away.
Disappointing conclusions aside, the takeaway here is Octavia Spencer. Period. It’s with Ma that she shines brightest. She delivers outrageous one-liners (I need bloopers ASAP) that will undoubtedly ring off on Twitter this summer. It’s what makes Ma so infectious and fun in spite of its shortcomings. Decades of character work have prepared Octavia Spencer for this moment and she doesn’t miss a stitch.