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Ma Movie Review

Ma (2019) movie poster Ma

Theatrical Release: May 31, 2019 / Running Time: 100 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Tate Taylor / Writer: Scotty Landes

Cast: Octavia Spencer (Sue Ann "Ma" Ellington), Diana Silvers (Maggie), Juliette Lewis (Erica), McKaley Miller (Haley), Corey Fogelmanis (Andy Hawkins), Gianni Paolo (Chaz), Dante Brown (Darrell), Tanyell Waivers (Genie), Dominic Burgess (Stu), Tate Taylor (Officer Grainger), Luke Evans (Ben Hawkins), Margaret Fegan (Stephanie), Missi Pyle (Mercedes), Allison Janney (Doctor Brooks), Kyanna Simone Simpson (Young Sue Ann), Matthew Welch (Young Ben), Skyler Joy (Young Erica), Nicole Carpenter (Young Mercedes)

 

It's not surprising that Octavia Spencer and director Tate Taylor would work together again after The Help became the biggest hit of both their careers and earned her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. What is surprising
is that the two longtime friends reunite on a horror movie, a genre Taylor's never worked in and Spencer has avoided since her 2011 breakthrough.

Ma assigns its titular role to Spencer. Sue Ann Ellington is a veterinary assistant, who one day is recruited outside a liquor store by a pack of teenagers to buy booze for them. Sue Ann's first reaction, like the five or so people they've already asked, is to say no, but after a little talking, she buys them a box full of bottles and wishes them well.

By now, we've already become acclimated with the teens. Our point of entry is Maggie (Diana Silvers), a 16-year-old who has changed high schools in the middle of the school year. She's just moved to this unnamed rural location with her newly-single mother Erica (Juliette Lewis), who is busy supporting them both as a casino waitress. Maggie is quickly and effortlessly admitted into a group of friends that includes the wild Haley (McKaley Miller), her quasi-boyfriend Chaz (Gianni Paolo), Darrell (Dante Brown), and designated driver Andy (Corey Fogelmanis).

"Ma" stars Octavia Spencer as Sue Anne Ellington, a vet assistant who befriends a group of high school kids.

They behave like many movie teens do, acting as questionable influences on our young protagonist as they vape, drink, and blow off steam. In a way the movie never explains, the group again hits up Sue Ann when they need to buy more alcohol illegally. On the second transaction, Sue Ann graduates from mere supplier to party host, offering her basement for the kids to do whatever they want. Though the kids aren't sure about her, their own space of freedom is much too good an offer to pass up.

Sue Ann, who becomes "Ma" to the gang when a comment by Darrell sticks, furnishes and redecorates the basement and soon hordes of teens are showing up to party down there. The first hour or so of the movie is straight up comedy. Think The House Bunny with Octavia Spencer.

Of course, Ma isn't just the harmless law-breaking free spirit she seems to be. She looks up the kids on Facebook. She zones out at work, to the frustration of her boss (an underused Allison Janney). And there are flashbacks to her own adolescence, which establish her as a shy girl smitten with a good-looking classmate.

You know this is a horror movie coming in. And you know there's a need for this dark, tragic backstory, but it does put kind of a damper on the underage shenanigans and the fun of Spencer karate chopping beer can towers and doing shots to old school jams like "Funkytown" and "Kung Fu Fighting." Connecting the past to the present to make sense of how Ma came to be this way is less fun. There are more questions than answers and they start to pile up as the movie reaches its bold climax.

"Ma" (Octavia Spencer) dances with high schoolers in the happening party space that is her basement.

Ma marks the feature film debut of its screenwriter, "Workaholics" alum Scotty Landes. He deserves credit for giving us a different kind of horror from the supernatural jump scares that pervade the genre these days.
Ma is genuinely funny and fun for much of its runtime, taken at face value as a piece of increasingly outlandish escapism. Spencer, who has become a go-to supporting actress in prestige fare, flourishes in what is her first solo lead role. She is believably askew and just plain entertaining in the more Melissa McCarthy-esque beats of the story.

Taylor isn't looking to reinvent the genre the way that Jordan Peele was in Get Out, one of the poster-cited works of this Blumhouse Production. But he brings with him cast members from all his previous times behind the camera, which explains why Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train) and Missi Pyle (Pretty Ugly People) are in a film you wouldn't describe as being in their wheelhouses. The more you think about Ma, the less you think of it. But in the moment, seeing it in a crowded theater that is laughing at both absurd and intentionally amusing moments, Ma is decidedly a good time.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Booksmart Aladdin The Sun Is Also a Star Long Shot The Intruder Pokemon: Detective Pikachu
Directed by Tate Taylor: The Help The Girl on the Train
Octavia Spencer: Hidden Figures The Shape of Water Instant Family Gifted Paradise Fruitvale Station Snowpiercer

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Reviewed May 30, 2019.



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