The “real America” Republican politicians are always fetishizing is dying. From the Rust Belt to the Bible Belt, small-town America in 2019 is defined by its abandoned shopping centers, crumbling facades, and garish casinos, where those who weren’t able to move on to bigger and better things piss away what little hope they have left. In an unanticipated twist that’s as shocking as anything in its screenplay, The Help director Tate Taylor’s new horror-thriller Ma gets this better than most. Although it was shot in Mississippi, the film’s empty storefronts and straggly forests present a facsimile of rural Ohio that really rang true for this Ohio native. The sense of despair that hovers over this otherwise trivial film is also on point, as Ma takes the commonly held belief among restless Midwestern youth that if you stay in your hometown after graduation there must be something wrong with you and pushes it to farcical extremes.
Early marketing for Ma made the film look like a slasher riff on the “mammy” stereotype—basically the definition of “problematic”—but the final product is more nuanced than that. Rather than a cartoonish monster, lonely veterinary assistant Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a.k.a. “Ma,” is more like a Stephen King character: She’s psychotic, yes, but her madness is driven by deep psychological pain that goes all the way back to her high school years. Maybe that’s why she invites all the teenagers in town over to her house for keggers every Saturday night, taking shots and smiling approvingly at the wild house party she never got to throw back in the ’80s, when she was a shy outcast hiding behind thick coke-bottle glasses. But does she have some bigger, more vindictive plan in mind?
Given that this is still a Blumhouse B-thriller, Sue Ann’s story unfolds through the eyes of a generic teenager, new girl in town Maggie (Booksmart’s Diana Silvers), who lives in a modest rental home with her casino waitress mom, Erica (Juliette Lewis). Erica recently suffered a humiliation of her own, having to move back home in the wake of a nasty divorce after “getting out” and leaving for California some 20 or so years back. When she runs into her former high school classmate Mercedes (Missi Pyle) at work, the tableau is bleak: Both of them are back where they started, failures in love and in life. (At least Erica isn’t day drunk like Mercedes is.)
Life in Ohio is a little more encouraging for Maggie, whose genuine niceness and unassuming beauty land her a boyfriend, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), and a new clique of high-school archetypes led by snarky bad girl Haley (McKaley Miller) soon after she arrives. Popular or not, Maggie and her friends still have nothing better to do than drink and smoke pot in Sue Ann’s basement, but hey: That’s life in a small town. And while Sue Ann is undeniably a little off, it’s better than the rock pile where they used to get trashed.
Choosing famous real-life wild child Lewis as a strict single mom is just one of Ma’s casting coups. It’s hard not to be charmed by a movie that secures Allison Janney for a throwaway role as Sue Ann’s gruff veterinarian boss, yelling at Spencer, Oscar winner to Oscar winner, to put down her phone and shave the dog lying sedated in front of her on an exam-room table. The veterinary conceit eventually pays off in ingeniously sadistic fashion as Ma goes Grand Guignol in its wild and campy final 30 minutes, one of the only notable stylistic touches in this otherwise conventionally shot film. And that’s fine, because colorful lighting or immodest camerawork would only distract from the real draw of Ma: seeing a serious dramatic actor in a B-horror villain role.
Scotty Landes’ script gives its star plenty to work with; there’s more to the plot of Ma than we can reveal here, and the script is littered with (mostly successful) jokes. But Spencer provides her character the kind of human dimension only a performer of her caliber could muster. Spencer’s Sue Ann is a profoundly isolated person, a middle-aged divorceé stuck in a dead-end job who’s further pushed to the margins by virtue of being a black woman in a majority white town. She dispenses moments of over-the-top insanity economically, and even then there are poignant hints of sadness and desperation behind both her plastered-on smile and her hair-trigger rage. If you bet on the possibility of the word “poignant” being used in a review of this film, then congratulations. We certainly didn’t.