When I think of Octavia Spencer, warmth comes to mind first. A strong, nurturing presence that is going to turn off the darkness and tell me everything is going to be okay during a movie.
That's exactly why Tate Taylor wanted Spencer for the lead role of the horror thriller, Ma. Everything you think is concrete about Spencer's screen presence is turned inside out, flipped around, and re-imagined as a sinister presence. The warmth here is merely arbitrary, luring you into a trap aimed to shock you.
This role is supposed to be the equivalent of Denzel Washington's turn in Training Day. A noble screen presence going against type and putting you on edge. While I don't think Oscar will be calling Spencer's name in January, I can tell you her work in this film lifts up an otherwise conventional thriller about a delusional woman wrecking havoc on a group of teenagers.
Taylor's film revolves around Sue Anne (Spencer), aka "Ma," who comes into our gaze as a lonely woman working at an animal hospital. She's quiet, flashes fake smiles, and goes about her day.
When the young and earnest Maggie (Diane Silvers), asks Sue Anne outside a liquor store to buy some booze for her and friends, the plot kicks into motion and a predictable, yet entertaining, path commences. Soon enough, she is texting the teens at will, they are calling her "Ma" and trust becomes a dangerous bridge with wildly unkempt intentions.
Look, 95% of the fun of Ma is seeing Spencer break bad. Her "caregiver" is a hurricane of bad history placed into the lives of innocents who have no idea yet why she is doing this to them. What starts out as a loving support system -- letting them hang out in her basement, providing food and comfort -- quickly goes sour. We know it is going to happen. It's only a matter of time.
Parts of the film are flawed.
The logistics of these teenagers, who clearly aren't this stupid, falling into Ma's trap is one of them. The backbone of the story, specifically what happened to Ma in order to make her this way, is telegraphed and doesn't come off as the surprise that the filmmaker intended. Also, the film isn't scary enough, even inducing laughter during its much-hyped climax. I am not sure Taylor's intentions prescribed that reaction.
The trailer built up the film as this large, scary endeavor, and the resolution after the wait and slow-burning build-up is a bit of a letdown. When Ma finally exacts her revenge and the plan goes into motion, I wanted more. The previous 70 minutes promised a more thrilling conclusion than what I got.
Due to the uneven story and disappointing finish, the greatness that Taylor and Spencer aspired for is never reached. Having said that, the phenomenal actress does keep you glued to the screen with her convincing portrayal of a scorned woman going to great and maniacal lengths to find some sort of peace. She sells the B-movie trashy fun quite well.
The supporting cash, including the teens, as well as Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans, don't bring much to the table outside of obligatory line reading and wooden reactions to harm. Maybe it's due to the fact that Spencer is such a presence or that Scotty Landes script doesn't offer much fat on the bone for the other actors to chomp down on. I'd place bets on the latter.
Here's the thing. It's the Octavia Spencer show, and while Ma falls short of greatness, it is a fine time at the movies to watch one of the best in the business show a different side of her talent, working an alternate speed.
Let me just say this to all young kids and teens: don't go into a stranger's basement .
...Like, ever. Thanks.