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an honorary for David Lynch 

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Review: Octavia Spencer lets loose with "Ma"

by Sean Donovan

In an age where critics praise a generation of thoughtful, innovative, and dazzlingly styled horror films, a deceptively basic package like Ma --unconcerned with winning good reviews, elevating the genre, or acquiring a fancy boutique label like A24 -- is uniquely refreshing. Ma’s jump scares are familiar, its plotting is predictably iffy, its logic and emotional contexts for its supporting characters even more so- but goddamn it, it’s fun.

The ‘fun’ comes from feeding off the joy of Octavia Spencer inhabiting domestic horror-thriller, Hand That Rocks the Cradle realness. No longer is Spencer smiling on a gilded stage, frozen while Peter Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga accept prizes for socially regressive trash to which she’s somehow attached. Octavia’s back baby, and this time she’s got hell to raise and teens to terrify....

And it’s Ma’s resolute ‘everydayness’ that gives the movie a surprising lingering resonance.

(minor spoilers in the review)

Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) moves with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) back to her mom’s hometown where she quickly becomes acquainted with a horror genre-standby, the unlikely group of friends: party girl Haley (McKaley Miller), sensitive Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), drunken ringleader Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and Darrell (Dante Brown), who isn’t given much of a character besides being the only non-white one of the group. Looking for an adult to buy them alcohol, the gang finds a supposed savior in the lonely Sue Ann (Spencer), nickname 'Ma,' who is not only fully willing to be their supplier, but also offers her cozy basement as a space for all-night partying. That beats their increasingly cop-patrolled usual hangout, a kind of quarry called ‘The Rockpile,’ another weirdly familiar inclusion from the canon of cliché teen movie details. But Sue Ann’s generosity comes with unforeseen strings attached, as she sinks her claws into the teenagers’ lives more and more.

And hold on, why does Sue Ann have a history with all the teens’s parents? What diabolical plan is at work here? Ma has a ball teasing these plotlines along, helped by flashbacks to a very costumey vision of the 1980s that is buoyed by the fine performance of Kyanna Simone Simpson as younger Sue Ann, and the emotional through-lines Spencer shades well into the present. Not to give anything away, but suffice it to say Sue Ann’s journey is Carrie from the perspective of a young woman of color, minus the superpowers.

It is very apparent that Ma, the character but more importantly the film, hates teenagers. Right up top there are two quick gay panic jokes, one from Andy and one from Haley, openly gay director Tate Taylor’s first indication of the social violences that reveal themselves as the primary subject of the film. It's also the first means of distancing the viewer from the teenagers that are supposedly our protagonists. In Ma teenagerdom is hell, and the punishment is an eternity spent with the same assholes you knew in high school.

Sue Ann’s history of social exclusion leads her to both fear and covet the world of hard-partying teenage rebels, her trauma enacting itself in more and more Gothic manifestations. That’s why the soundtrack is ‘out of time’- the teenagers strangely living it up to “Funky Town” and “Kung Fu Fighting” as Sue Ann attempts to overcome one generation of teenage cruelty via another. Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” is also used, in a particularly funny bit of bleak comedy with Missi Pyle as the adult version of one of Sue Ann’s bullies. Pyle has been in worse movies than this and is well-experienced in going-for-broke and having fun with limited material; her cardboard cruelty and dim self-absorption is perfect. Juliette Lewis, stranded in Ma’s least effective scenes, is less successful, mainly due to her utter lack of chemistry with her on-screen daughter.

When Ma finally heats up to an almost torture porn level of horror, the gear change is abrupt and unconvincing, motivated more by our immense desire to see Sue Ann fully unleash hell than anything within the text. The inclusion of a munchausen-by-proxy subplot is also ill-supported, lacking the screen-time or pointed writing to flow with the rest of the film, feeling unfortunately like a disrespectful reference to a shiny mental illness ‘of the moment,’ chasing its depictions in prestige drama series like Sharp Objects and The Act. But all the same, something miraculous happens in Ma’s turn to outright horror, particularly with Octavia Spencer. Set free in the wildness of horror movie villain glamour, Spencer shines and unleashes a well of pent-up anger, anxiety, and madness that we rarely see from her. The film’s quiet but impactful depiction of growing up of color in a white-dominated town reaches a crystalline zenith in Sue Ann’s late-in-the-film interactions with the aforementioned ‘black friend’ Darrell. Brilliantly calling out the film’s structure of tokenization (and Hollywood’s as a whole), Sue Ann coos “There’s only room for one of us” as she paints his face white. Ma is messy and uneven, as run-of-the-mill horror films often are, but it gives voice to a specific form of trauma, in a brash genre vocabulary that renders its expression cathartic, fun, and appropriately worshipful of a divine Octavia Spencer star turn. B+


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Reader Comments (21)

You don't need to dismiss the new horror movement to praise this movie

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjota

fun review and fun movie though

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterjota

The wig alone made my mouth water for this. The film sounds predictable, but, what's not predictable today?

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFeline Justice

Yea! I had so much fun watching Octavia let loose. I saw it Thursday night with a very enthusiastic ATL audience. More lead roles for her please!

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterA.H.

I saw it Friday night and nearly every seat was filled at the 9pm show. The audience had a blast! Funny, suspenseful, campy, tense. Reminded me of those 90s Hand That Rocks The Crafle / Single White Female films but more fun. Octavia clearly enjoyed making this one!!

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

Omg, this movie was so much fun and consistent throughout! I was entertained from start to finish. I love when I feel like my money at the movies is well-spent. Octavia Spencer is so talented, too. She makes it look so easy.

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I used to like Octavia Spencer and think, yes, she’s good. Now I love Octavia Spencer and think, yeah, she’s great.

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Octavia in Ma > Lupita in Us. Fight me.

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrad

This might be the most enjoyable 90 minutes I've ever spent in a movie theater. What a hoot!

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

This looks like not my kind of movie, but I still want to see it because I am always on Octavia's side.

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I loved this camp. Spencer is sooooooo good in the role. I disagree with the Juliette Lewis put-down. The relationship between mom and daughter felt natural and lived in. They didn't have to work any harder to convince me. The minute she goes into pissed of mom mode at her daughter, that was real shit. That is usually how a parent reacts when they don't know how to react to being scared/pissed/angry at/for their child. Honestly, that's usually a black parent reaction. There was nothing but greatness in her performance too.

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan (the 1st)

No need to trash another movie. She is an executive producer on Green Book along with Steven Spielberg. If she didn’t like the script she wouldn’t have exec. produced it. Sorry your choice didn’t win. What exactly have you made besides a bitter movie blog?

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

@brad - I don't want to fight you but kinda want to hug you.

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

And I thought Juliette Lewis was terrific. Shrug.

brad - 100%. I would so prefer an awards campaign for this movie over the self-serious Us.

June 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

She has zero range, so her performance is always more about the surrounding film and elements.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

It's fabulous fun - and, odds are, Octavia's turn in this will be more interesting than most of this year's Oscar-nominated performances.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

LoL at a serious review giving this movie a B+

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

She deserves her career Posterized.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDoodie

Yes to brad and Yes to Philip H

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Movie was awful. Octavia couldn't elevate trash like this.

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLenny

Lenny.. you seem to be in the minority. Everyone else enjoyed it

June 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLevity

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