Directed by: Tate Taylor
Written by: Scotty Landes & Tate Taylor
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, McKaley Miller, Luke Evans
High school has a mix of teenagers trying to figure out their identity and add an explosion of hormones guiding students to perhaps make the worst decisions. The legacy of events that happen in those years haunts and informs the events that occur in this wonky but slightly entertaining story with a truly different performance by one of our best actors.
Due to financial issues arising, Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) has to move into her mother’s hometown for a fresh start and needs to make new friends. In the process of meeting new people, Maggie’s new group run into the seemingly harmless Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) or as she likes them to call her “Ma.” The enigmatic woman invites the teenagers to utilize her basement for parties, as her house is out of the way and there should be no fear of being caught by law enforcement. The teens see it as a wonderful opportunity but as Ma continues to coax them into hanging out at her house, the teenagers see that there might be something sinister happening.
The mechanics of a small town remains fascinating to me, as the communities that form there tend to be very insular. At times people grow up there, stay there, and continue to procreate and those children stay in that very same town. That produces an environment where everybody knows someone’s parent or some relative. It could be homey for some, but that might be too much connection in a world where consequences may be voided because law enforcement knows someone’s connection to another family member. As Maggie enters the world of her mother’s upbringing, she quickly learns about the reputation her mother had and how all of the adults know each other from school. It creates a claustrophobic feeling where everyone knows her and has some preconceived opinions based solely on the reputation of her mother.
As a character, Ma embodies a completely horrifying persona, who at times becomes unintentionally funny in the film. A role that Octavia Spencer has not really done in the past and contrasts the type of characters she has portrayed to critical acclaim. She won her Academy Award for playing an underprivileged maid in The Help and another nomination for a woman experiencing racism in The Shape of Water. In Ma, she harnesses the role of a pure aggressor in the story and becomes a real threat to the audience, rather than a calming presence that many might be accustomed to. It’s obvious that Octavia enjoys this performance, as she goes completely wacky with Ma as a character.
As a whole, the film has its major issues and one of them being its marketing, which gave away nearly every good scene in the story that should have been reserved for surprises. Ma becomes unhinged throughout the narrative and starts torturing and murdering others that have wronged her currently and in the past. Shockingly, the marketing showed every major sequence that would have been much more effective not being an expectation and once taken away, nothing remains to latch onto. While Spencer gives a good performance and has a blast, the rest of the film lacks any originality and depth. The reveals shown are quite obvious and by the end, there was a lack of satisfaction with the full narrative of the story. The rest of the teen actors display some innocuous wooden acting and their presence in the story only serves to annoy the audience enough for Ma to scare them. The plot feels flimsy and once the entire picture presents itself, nothing with depth remains and it feels like a throwaway film.
It does employ more gore than I expected it to, especially towards the end when Ma truly becomes unhinged towards others. Several times during the runtime I winced at what was being done to the characters. All of this pain suffered stems from the pain Ma had to endure when she attended high school. With it being a small town, the trauma Ma endured came from the same individuals parenting this new crop of teens. The anger started there and only continued to manifest itself through the story.
Pulpy would be a good way to describe this film, as it does get ridiculous and the lead actor gives a very over-the-top performance. This story might work for others if they have their expectations set for how everything unfolds. I found it to be narratively weak but I could certainly see something like this garnering a cult following.