Ma brings poignancy to a trashy thriller
So much of Octavia Spencer's character in Ma makes so little sense. When we meet her she is walking a three legged dog, wearing her work scrubs from her job as a Veterenarian tech, and Maggie (Diana Silvers) asks her to buy alcohol for her and her teenage friends. She obliges them after some resistance, before eventually inviting them to party in her basement. Darrell (Dante Brown), the lone black teen in the friend group, finds it all a bit suspicious while his white friends are happy to have a hassle free place to party. Like a character out of Get Out, he has probably never had the privilege to be so ignorant in a dangerous situation- and he's right to be weary, cause there is definitely something wrong with Ma (or Sue Ann).
Sue Ann seems to be one of the only black people living in this town, a place that most people try to get away from if they are lucky- where the glory days lived out by a few in high school end up being a curse that haunts their lame adult lives. There is no victory carried out by the popular ones who never get to leave, but Sue Ann is still scarred by traumatic memories of being bullied in high school, wondering how things might have been different for her if she had only been accepted. As one of the only black girls in her high school, she was the perpetual other, and flashbacks to her past reveal a socially awkward nerdy girly who only wanted to fit in. These scenes also build up to a horrific event that would stick with anyone- imagine if Carrie had no psychic powers, and hadn't taken out her revenge on prom night, but sulked on it for thirty years.
In a fine coincidence, Maggie (who is also the new girl in town) and her boyfriend Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) are the children of Sue Ann's classmates who perpetrated her traumatic experience- and much of the film is spent wondering what it is she is planning to do with these kids. Yet she earns their trust so easily because of how effectively she fills that "mammy” stereotype. Director Tate Taylor (The Help, Get On Up, The Girl On The Train) has been telling black stories for quite some time now, and seems eager to get his hands dirty in the mess of America's racist history. Ma is interested in the (limited) roles there are for black women to play in society, and in a meta sense, film itself. Sue Anne easily becomes the older black woman who is there to serve white folks, and represents eternal, harmless and safe mother energy. Not because she is, but because that is who these teenagers expect her to be. Yet we in the audience see something different. Does she seek a healing experience? Does she want to relive her high school days from a position of power? Or does she want revenge? The journey is full of cringey interpersonal drama, jump scares, and is all in all a chance for Octavia Spencer to absolutely shine and chew up everything around her.
I was prepared to love Ma as a new trash camp classic, and enjoy it alongside a rowdy crowd who was there to have a good time. I did not expect to get so pulled into a poignant tale of the other. Even as she is a terrifying character who does despicable thing after despicable thing, she is a real person- an archetype who gets more and more shades as the movie draws her in. The wounds of adolescence can leave some real scars, and linger into adulthood, a subject which many movies have explored thoroughly. Few have done so with more bold what-the-fuck-ery as Ma.
Ma opens In Philly theaters today.