Review: Octavia Spencer embraces her bad self, but ‘Ma’ isn’t good or bad enough


I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure “Ma” is the first movie in which Octavia Spencer plays someone who’s terrible at her job. Her character, Sue Ann, is a veterinarian’s aide, a calling that doesn’t seem to interest her very much. The attention she pays to the ailing pets in her care is selective at best. Her boss (Allison Janney) is always ordering her to get off the internet and get back to work. The clinic gives her unlimited access to tranquilizers, not all of which she wields in service of animal welfare.

It’s a stark contrast with Spencer’s best-known roles, most of whom have been figures of hard-working, tough-minded decency. The characters who earned her three Academy Award nominations — a janitor in “The Shape of Water,” a NASA mathematician in “Hidden Figures,” a Mississippi housemaid in “The Help” — were all stoic, admirable pillars of mid-1960s social resistance. Their unflagging work ethic spoke to their integrity, but also to their circumstances: For a middle-aged black woman living in racially and politically turbulent times, working hard and looking out for others was less a matter of idealism than of survival.

“Ma,” set in a depressing Ohio town in the present day, has nothing so noble on its mind, which is supposed to be part of the fun. With more glee than competence, it takes Spencer’s sturdy second-banana persona and pushes it to the opposite extreme, upgrading her to the status of a malevolent leading lady and weaponizing her natural talent for comic relief. Essentially, it attempts to do for Spencer what the recent “Greta” did for Isabelle Huppert, riffing on and subverting a great actor’s past work so as to make you howl with laughter, or terror, or both.

Of course, if you saw “Greta” — or if you’ve seen “Misery,” “Single White Female” or any other psycho-thriller about a woman with a crazy possessive streak — there is little in this terminally silly schlock exercise that will surprise you. The movie’s point, or at least its selling point, is that you’ve never seen Octavia Spencer brandish a pistol or a butcher knife while wearing a nightmarish purple cardigan — a spectacle, it assumes, that will be sufficiently novel for us to overlook all the second-rate jump scares and imbecilic plot turns that follow in its wake.

And for a while, it is. We first meet Sue Ann through the eyes of a 16-year-old named Maggie (Diana Silvers, “Booksmart”), who stops her outside a liquor store one day and asks her to buy some alcohol for her and her friends. (They are played by McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Gianni Paolo and Dante Brown.) The older woman reluctantly agrees, with a mix of disapproval and complicity that charms the teenagers and disarms their better judgment. Before long, Sue Ann — or Ma, as she insists they call her — invites them over to drink and party in her basement, where they will be safe from cops and potential DUIs.

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Safety, alas, proves elusive. Sue Ann can be a fun enough host when the mood strikes her, which is to say when she isn’t spiking the booze or forcing a guy to strip naked at gunpoint. (She laughs it off as a joke; the real joke is that they believe her.) She forbids them from going upstairs into the house, where weird noises regularly issue forth. When Maggie and her friends decide they’ve had enough of Ma, she bombards them with apologetic text messages and creepy selfie videos — the sign of a lonely, obsessive personality who clearly knows rejection too well to take no for an answer.

Maggie is new in town, having moved here with her mother, Erica (an always welcome Juliette Lewis), who actually grew up here decades ago — a plot point that hints at some potentially intriguing buried secrets but ultimately goes nowhere. Luke Evans and Missi Pyle show up as Erica’s old high-school friends, who haven’t exactly become model citizens — unless, of course, you compare them to Ma. It’s only a matter of time before the sharp objects come out, but while the movie has a certain knack for over-the-top grisliness, it proves much more deficient in the art of mounting and sustaining suspense.

Then again, suspense may well be beside the point. “Ma” was directed and co-written (with Scotty Landes) by Tate Taylor, who famously guided Spencer to an Oscar win for her performance in “The Help.” It’s hard not to come away from “Ma” thinking that both he and his star felt like dismantling, or at least subverting, that earlier movie’s sense of virtue, its patina of prestige. Spencer succeeds much more than the movie itself does; even when the writing and the filmmaking fail her, which is annoyingly often, she’s awfully good at using her beatific smile and tough-talking charm to elicit your nervous chuckles.

Ma’s obsessive behavior is rooted in her own teenage traumas, as seen here in several laughable, tension-killing flashbacks. But the movie leaves room for the suggestion that she is also railing against the stereotype of the sweetly subservient African American woman, and that as personal as it is, she might in fact be taking a more collective, sociological form of revenge. (As the Hollywood Reporter’s Richard Newby recently pointed out, “Ma” might as well be shorthand for “Mammy.”)

To be clear: In terms of ambition and execution, “Ma” is very far from “Get Out,” though the two pictures do share a producer, Blumhouse Productions, with a thrifty, profitable sideline in politically charged horror. You are meant to be freaked out by the African masks decorating the walls of Ma’s house — a detail that might say more about the filmmakers than it does about the audience — and also by the sight of a woman who, for all the syringes and IV bags she has on hand, turns out to be the very opposite of a nurturing caretaker. These are interesting ideas in search of an interesting movie.

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Rating: R, for violent/disturbing material, language throughout, sexual content, and for teen drug and alcohol use

When: Opens Friday

Where: Wide release

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

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