A lonely woman befriends a group of teenagers and decides to let them party at her house.

There are basically two types of thrillers, one where the antagonist is an unrepentant monster, sometimes they’re inhuman horrible killers like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs or literally inhuman monster like Alien, and one where the antagonist generates sympathy, like the high school bullied victim who unleashes telekinetic fury in Carrie. The thriller movie, Ma, sort of wants to have it both ways so the result is a little muddied. The antagonist is presented as sympathetic, however, she does some really nasty things. Yet when her tortured backstory is revealed, it’s hard to feel anything but sad for her. The layers of sympathy and revulsion are a bit too much for what at its core is a silly teen slasher movie, although frankly it only becomes that right in the last 20 minutes. It’s also has coming of age sub–plot clichés that frankly get in the way of the good stuff. If it wasn’t for a really absorbing lead performance the movie would be a bit of a chore but Ma manages to keep things interesting. When Erica (Juliette Lewis), moves back to her hometown, her daughter Maggie (Diana Silvers), is stuck in a new high school trying to make friends. Maggie gets to know local youth Haley (McKaley Miller) and her friends who spend the weekend begging adults to score them booze. One day, a woman named Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) decides to help them out and invites them to her basement for drinking time. They kids nickname her “Ma” as the parties get more and more out of control. But soon Ma is becoming more intrusive in their lives and she starts to remember things about her past in the 1980s high school where Erica was a student along with the now adult and surly Ben (Luke Evans). Soon their interactions with Ma are less fun and threaten to become deadly. The most interesting character is Spencer’s Ma, who ends up being surprisingly layered. It is really weird that she is hanging around these kids but they roll with it because she seems fun. She sort of comes off as a needy, pathetic friend, leaving them gifts of booze after school to entice them for partying. The reason that she is sympathetic is the various flashbacks to her high school years show a trauma she endured by bully kids that is downright sickening. This is probably the reason why the horror stuff is a bit more difficult to be scary because the poor woman was traumatized. There’s also a mildly intriguing mystery subplot about why Ma won’t let people upstairs in her home which is a way to make her seem more of a typical villain that has an interesting resolution, if very underdeveloped. Spencer is usually a secondary character in more dramatic movies; this film is actually even directed by Tate Taylor who made The Help with Spencer which is way out of their wheelhouse. She is always an entertaining performer and she makes Ma more compelling than it has any right to be. A few scenes feature her slacking off at her veterinary job as her boss played by Alison Janney berates her and Janney is enjoyably overbearing. Director Taylor hasn’t really worked in horror movies before so some of his scares are easy jump ones as opposed to an oppressive, overbearing tone that great horror movies conjure. Great horror movies also have very moody lighting and camera movements but this fairly rote visually. The scare scenes that work is mostly contained at the end when Ma traps the kids in improvised homemade devices. It is a hard tonal gearshift into Saw territory that the movie doesn’t quite earn but it’s decent. As the teenager the movie’s point of view is from, Silver’s Maggie is a relatable introvert who just wants to get along with her new high school mates. Sometimes teenager characters in horror movies can be irritating fodder but she gives the character some inner life. Miller’s Halley is basically the motormouthed party girl and she has some good lines, like when she says that as a teenager they can smoke whatever they want until they’re 25 and not have anything happen. They hang out with a crew of guys who all kind of blur together in blandness. As Ben, Evans has a serviceable American accent and while he at seems like a protective dad to his kid who is hanging out with Ma, he shows a darker, more sinister layer later on. He’s also at the centerpiece of one of the movie’s more harrowing moments with Ma. There is a lot of time devoted to Maggie’s mom Erica that ultimately doesn’t really amount to anything but Lewis plays a decent mother trying to piece her life back together. However, the dwelling upon her new job at a casino is like something out of a working class character drama that clashes with the horror elements. Ma is definitely a mixed bag. There are a lot of disparate elements that don’t exactly hang together ultimately. But what makes it work well enough is Spencer who makes a monster seem wounded and human. It may ultimately deflate the horror elements but at least she keeps it interesting. V             

MA 3 stars

 Director: Tate Taylor Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers and Juliette Lewis

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