Tate Taylor’s Ma feels a little like a movie struggling to keep its head above water. A psychological horror in which a single middle-aged woman curiously befriends a bunch of high school kids with apparently sinister motives; if it stays afloat at all, it probably only does so because of the buoyancy of its star. Octavia Spencer takes the title role – MA, as she is known colloquially by the kids – in an intimidating performance that just about succeeds in papering over the some fairly considerable deficiencies in the scripting and common sense department.
Spencer’s robustly friendly Ma becomes a surrogate mother-of-sorts to a bunch of typically hard-partying teens determined to party hard in the way that, let’s face it, all movie teens should be entitled to. She strikes up the relationship with them after agreeing to buy them booze and offering her basement as a pad in which to drink. Initially, all seems well as the apparently harmless woman seems cool enough, but the friendship rapidly takes on an obsessive element and Ma’s friendliness is replaced with an intensity that threatens to boil over into violence. Imagine Norman Bates’ mother turns up halfway through Animal House and you get the idea.
Inconsistent in tone, the whole thing is super-glued together by Spencer’s performance which is bold enough to keep things interesting even as it veers between vicious and sentimental. The problem is, it’s keen enough to be repeatedly nasty as often as possible, as well as being uproariously camp as often as not – while at the same time indulging in an occasionally saccharine sentimentality. It seems to provoke laughter and revulsion in equal measures and not always intentionally. It’s an issue that would totally sink many movies, that it doesn’t feel completely torpedoed is almost certainly down to Spencer. She comes across as wild and dangerous and appears to be revelling in the role even as the movie clumsily juggles outright carnage with heavy-handed attempts to provoke sympathy.
The audience with whom I saw it was plainly as divided as a friendly chat about Brexit. Half the room seemed to approach it is high camp nonsense, hooting with laughter, while the other seemed genuinely shocked by its moments of visceral horror. That the movie seems to dabble with, but never fully commit to, either highlights the weaknesses in the script and, perhaps, the absence of really strong direction. Spencer’s exciting presence brings hands across the divide, but never fully heals the rift.
Chris Banks | ★★ 1/2
Horror, Thriller | USA, 2019 | 15 | 31st May 2019 (UK) | Universal Pictures | Dir.Tate Taylor | Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, Allison Janney, McKaley Miller