Directed by Tate Taylor
Recently I was walking towards town when a couple of kids, no older than fifteen, asked me to go into the local Tesco and pick them up some spirits. I declined, of course, and went on my merry way. However, a couple of minutes later I remembered me and my friends doing the exact same at their age: waiting hours for vodka we’d tip into a coke bottle then swig on a park bench in the cold. Never once thinking of the moral character of the people who’d actually supply it to underage drinkers. Well, the latest from Blumhouse is all about that part.
Sue Ann (aka Ma, played by Spencer) is a lonely middle-aged woman, in a boring job, who befriends some teens, via this rite of passage. They soon become convinced she’s the bee’s knees due to her liberal attitude to drink. And given she’s spent most of her life as an outsider, she’s all too happy to turn her basement into a drinking den for the in-crowd provided they stick to her rules. First, nobody takes the Lord’s name in vain. Second, one of the kids has to stay sober at all times to drive them back. And third, nobody goes upstairs. At all. Among her young guests is Maggie (Silvers), a slightly shy kid who is new to the school, having recently moved back to her mum’s hometown with her after a divorce. Now, with new friends to impress and a single parent who’s working days and nights to make ends meet, she hesitantly welcomes this new mother figure into her life. She’s pushy, but least she lets her spend more time with the earnest, unassuming Andy (Fogelmanis).
What follows is a paranoia thriller, as Ma gets too demanding, with echoes of Misery, Carrie and Saw. The good news is it mostly works, mostly due to the commendable efforts of its star. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is phenomenal, elevating the at times trashy material with a powerful energy and realism. Having struck gold with director Tate Taylor before, for The Help, it’s interesting to see the pair of them working together on this. Perhaps it’s a means of giving them some well-earned mainstream success, with neither having commercially followed up their 2011 heyday. Now, with Jordan Peele showing Blumhouse can carry credibility, it isn’t like they’re slumming it. As per Kathy Bates’ as Annie Wilkes, Spencer fully inhabits the role and embraces her character’s many sides. She plays Sue Ann with the easy warmth of a cool aunt during the initial bonding scenes, in which she ingratiates herself into the group. However, the second someone gets on her bad side the switch flips and she becomes physically imposing very quickly, with a sudden and scary sadism. But as important to the character being scary is her being human. And there’s a naff joy to seeing her lead a robot dance to Funkytown – what the drunk teens take an ironic glee in, she presumably still considers to be what young people do.
It’s interesting to think about how different the movie would be were Sue Ann a man. Sure, the predatory element is there (with her having her eye on Andy), although its more joked about than worried about. There’s a pathetic pathos to a now middle-aged Sue Ann living the life denied to her before – peaking late, with the new generation of kids vicariously standing in for those who mistreated her those many years ago. As the chilled-out grown-up, who allows them to do things their own mums and dads never would, she’s more popular now than she’s ever been. But like the Joel Edgerton flick, The Gift, where the film lost me was in how it handled her transition from victim to villain. Come act three, when Sue Ann is in full Jigsaw mode her motivation and nuance get lost in an awkward attempt to increase the dramatic stakes. Her methods are surprisingly fresh (just think what a person could do with access to veterinary tools) and one point, in particular, had half the audience squirming in discomfort. Still, the change in pace and tone results in a film that’s very unbalanced: too slow to appeal to torture fans and too silly to please audiences looking for a slow-burner. It’s a shame, as the best bits of the first two thirds, and Spencer’s stellar performance made this the kind of movie I wanted to like way more than I actually could.
Ma still gets a lot right. While it lacks the group conflict a coming of age film needs, with the young cast mostly agreeing on everything, it still has the semblance of a satisfying character journey. Moreover, it spends time trying to explore serious themes – including the long term effects of bullying, the failure of moving back home and the lost in time feel of destitute, small-town America. It handles these ideas with a refreshing tact, until a disappointingly schlocky denouement that feels more like a studio demand than a logical conclusion. Still, perhaps younger audiences will like the mix of character-driven horror with a goofy, gory and gratuitous reward for their patience. At least it’ll keep them off the streets.