Not all films need to be analytical, high-brow or make some intellectual sense. Sometimes you just want to sit back and watch a film so ridiculously entertaining in its trashiness, that it lives up to expectations. Going by that logic, Ma deserves all the praise it can get.
If 2019 is a great trend indicator, then it’s the year of female actresses having a ‘grand old-time’ in front of the camera doing evil things. Neil Jordan’s Greta and Tate Taylor’s Ma share a similar story – lonely women befriending a girl (or teenagers in Ma’s case) with offers of friendship and access, and before you know it, they’re part of your inner circle finding perverted ways to disrupt it. Never shying away from its B-movie qualities, both of its leading actresses are the star turn in their respective films. Isabelle Huppert is delightfully eccentric and psychologically deranged, whereas Octavia Spencer is creepy and devilishly uncompromising, laced with childhood trauma. Both films are insane and somewhat idiotic. But Ma is the outright winner, comfortably becoming the film Greta wished it was. At least Ma trusts its audience with the insanity and Spencer has no problem dialling that up.
Undoubtedly, we shouldn’t be surprised, especially if you’ve been following Spencer’s career over the years. Playing roles which have presented a certain motherly, matron, sassy, and authoritative personality, in The Shape of Water, Hidden Figures and The Help, this is very much a therapeutic response for the gifted actress. Teaming up with director Tate Taylor (director of The Help, which rewarded Spencer with an Oscar), Ma aimed to rip up the rulebook on their previous work, using the opportunity as an inventive excuse to unleash hell.
Straight-forward as this film alludes itself to be, it’s much more than the trailer suggests. Ma doesn’t have the same level of articulation or depth of Blumhouse’s high profile releases – Get Out for example – but it says a lot about diverse representation when its subtext sparks a conversation about social realities. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, Taylor and Scotty Landes’ script builds enough dark, subversive motifs that tap into the archetypical framework on mammy figures. Long since the days of Hattie McDaniel, when she famously played one in Gone with the Wind, mammy figures have always been a comfortable, go-to trope in Hollywood for black actresses: someone who’s submissive, dutiful, nurturing and excessively joyful in personality. Narratively, Ma goes a step further, utilising the opportunity to examine how mammy figures are treated. Allison Janney’s comedic fire as Doctor Brooks has more discourse for the animals she treats than the mental welfare for Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer). Luke Evans’ Ben has no problem with public belittling and humiliation. Even when she’s illegally picking up alcohol for partying teenagers, Ma never hides the point that value and respect are not treated on an equal playing field.
Effectively, the role reversal flippancy is why Ma works. Unshackling from the labels, Spencer joyfully adapts to the chameleonic role, knowing there’s advantageous fun playing against type and expectations. As Sue Ann, it’s an inflamed cocktail, mixed with colourful ingredients of stereotype, comedy, obsession and vulnerability, served with a slice of Kathy Bates in Misery, giving Spencer an inspired level of cathartic, predatory creep as a master manipulator and instigator of ‘honey-trap’ scenarios. Uncomfortable moments run through its bloodstream, but where it counts is in Spencer’s complex unravelling: race, connected to Sue Ann’s attempts to fit in as a social outcast, is the empathic crux for its twisted take. Its intentions are always on the constant threshold between psychological thrills, and pushing the boundaries on its contextual reality. In one torturous scene, painting Darrell’s (Dante Brown) face with white paint, collective tokenism is implied: there’s only room for one black person in the group! However, Ma is fully committed and content on having a good time, developing enough grounded material for Spencer to establish a believable cause for the malice.
Operating as a breezy tribute to horror classics of yesteryear (Carrie for example) ,as well as breaking down those relevant tropes with a black female lead, Taylor’s film isn’t focused on jump-scare novelties. There’s never a dull moment in its unpredictable chaos. The supporting cast may rely on superficial and surface level dramatics to convey teenager behaviour or adult life, but at least you care just enough to stick to the trippy ride.
Ma is gloriously trashy, with the right amount of camp fun, creepiness and comedic absurdity: it understands what type of film it wants to be. Octavia Spencer is a national treasure – if you didn’t believe in that before, you will after this.
Dir: Tate Taylor
Scr: Scotty Landes
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle and Allison Janney.
Prd: Jason Blum, Octavia Spencer, Tate Taylor
DOP: Christina Voros
Music: Gregory Tripi
Country: United States
Ma is released on 31st May.