Octavia Spencer will make teen viewers think twice about asking random adults for booze with her portrayal of a small-town Ohio loner who becomes obsessed with some local high schoolers in “Ma,” a devilishly fun and freaky thriller also featuring Diana Silvers (“Glass,” “Booksmart”), Juliette Lewis, and Luke Evans.
With his follow-up to the underwhelming adaptation of “The Girl on the Train,” director Tate Taylor continues to abandon more serious-minded fare like “The Help” in favor of suspense, and “Ma” is a chilling but also darkly funny diversion that draws tonal comparisons to the recent work of Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us”). With a script by Scotty Landes (“Workaholics,” “Who is America?”) that manages to be both consistently funny and unsettling, this twisty trip down Crazy Lane offers thrills, laughs, and atmosphere aplenty throughout its trippy 99-minute running time. Rounded out by a spooky score that keeps viewers in its grasp, effectively eerie editing that lands every scare it seeks, and an assemblage of youthful and veteran performers who do wonders in selling the somewhat silly premise, “Ma” may go down as the mother of all sociopath flicks.
“Ma” centers around Maggie (Diana Silvers), a high schooler who along with her recently divorced mother Diana (Juliette Lewis) moves back to her mom’s small Ohio hometown. While her mother trains to be a dealer at a local casino, Maggie succeeds in befriending a popular group of kids at school led by the trouble-seeking Haley (McKaley Miller), and before long she is drinking booze and hanging out at the local rock pile with her group of friends that includes Darrell (Dante Brown), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and her crush Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), who is the son of a former classmate of Maggie’s mom named Ben (Luke Evans).
One day, while asking random strangers outside of a convenient store to buy them booze, Maggie approaches a seemingly normal woman named Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) and, despite some initial misgivings, convinces her to hook them up. But Sue Ann is clearly a loner with a couple screws loose, and in no time she is stalking the students on social media and inviting them over to her house, offering up her basement as a party-friendly refuge. But when Maggie breaks one of Sue Ann’s golden rules – never go upstairs – she hears something disturbing and begins to detect that something is seriously amiss. As the secrets of Sue Ann’s existence come into light and her true motives are revealed, Maggie tries to save herself and those closest to her before it’s too late.
Part teen drama, part psychological thriller, all served up with a devilishly twisted sense of humor, much like the similarly spooky film “Greta” from earlier this year, “Ma” settles on the right balance between genuine frights and death black laughs. Although his previous thriller “The Girl on the Train” left me underwhelmed, director Tate Taylor was able to establish a strikingly foreboding tone in that effort, and his work here is even more exacting as he infuses the proceedings with all the suspense one could hope for in addition to some macabre humor to go along with it. Helping Taylor hit this tonal precision is the freakishly fun script by Scotty Landes, which satisfies the expectations of the thriller genre but does so with inventiveness and humor and grounds it firmly in modern times. Memorable camerawork by Christina Voros, a trippy score by Gregory Tripi and standout editing from Lucy Donaldson and Jin Lee all contribute considerably in the overall enjoyment of this thoroughly disturbing enterprise.
Although we have seen Octavia Spencer excel in everything from the lighthearted to the dramatic, even earning accolades like an Oscar and Golden Globe for her previous work with director Tate Taylor (“The Help”), her portrayal of the demented title character in “Ma” is her most stunning accomplishment yet. Despite her character being a hard-partying killer who preys on teens, Spencer’s portrayal somehow manages to be deeply human, imbuing her character with a surprising empathy given all her misdeeds of the past and present. Her portrayal puts audiences through the emotional gauntlet and they won’t soon forget it. Playing the central teen role of Maggie, Diana Silvers adds another impressive performance to her resume after her recent exemplary work in “Booksmart,” while Juliette Lewis is expectedly badass as a no-nonsense mom who doesn’t take kindly to a strange woman befriending her daughter. Luke Evans also excels as the father of Maggie’s boyfriend who may have played a central role in shaping Sue Ann into the Looney Tune that she is today.
“Ma” is a seriously twisted thriller made all the more memorable by the maniacal lead performance of Octavia Spencer.
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 99 minutes
Rated R for violent/disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use.