"You guys wanna party like rock stars? Follow me." Sue Ann
Octavia Spencer is becoming one of my favourite actresses. I loved her performance in Hidden Figures a couple of years ago. She was great in The Shape of Water, one of my films of the year last year. What I didn’t realise until a couple of nights ago was that she had also appeared in The Big Bang Theory as a DMV civil servant, intolerant of Sheldon when he tries to apply for his driving test in a second season episode. She’s an actress that can morph into different types of roles without being typecast.
So, naturally, my curiosity and interest were piqued when I started seeing trailers for Ma. I became sold on the idea of seeing Octavia Spencer in what appeared to be a suspense thriller. And I was not disappointed. There are some strong elements of horror in Ma, and I guess regular readers will know that a lot of horror movies leave me disappointed these days, due in no small part to their skimpy plots and reliance on jump scares because they simply have nothing else to offer. Ma shows them how it’s done. It both is a horror film, in that the motivations that drive the character are the result of a cruel and humiliating high school prank that damaged them emotionally and psychologically compelling them to exact a terrible revenge on the perpetrators. This is exactly how most (if not all) classic slasher movies started off. But it’s hard to define Ma as just a horror film. Horror films are, in the main, unlikely to happen in real life and more often than not the menace is supernatural. This film doesn’t fall into those categories – the premise is realistic and feasible. But then, I’ve long argued that “horror” as a film genre term is both flexible and subjective.
Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) is a lady in her early middle age. She works as a receptionist in a small-town veterinary surgery and is minding her own business while passing a convenience store when she’s approached by a high school teenager who asks her to buy them some booze. Sue Ann agrees, and soon befriends the local teens, allowing them to use the basement of her out-of-town house for their parties. She cleans it up, provides beer, shots, snacks and is the belle of the ball at these almost nightly parties, earning the nickname of “Ma”. BUT – all isn’t as it seems.
Ma has a volatile temper when defied, and an even darker nature that is slowly brewing away under her happy-go-lucky exterior. She has revenge on her mind and begins to manipulate the teens. Of course, the teens believe they can control and coerce their new benefactor – but they have no idea what they’re dealing with. The use of her basement as a party room with free refreshments comes with rules. One of which is NOT to go upstairs. Well, we know as soon as that rule is uttered that the teens will break it and someone will go wandering.
It’s a strong film, and it reminded me of another from years ago in its structure and slow build-up. Anyone remember One Hour Photo? Robin Williams played a meek worker at one of those counters they had in shopping centres and malls where you could have your photos developed in an hour. He is initially friendly, but gradually becomes unhealthily obsessed with one particular family to the point of printing off an extra set of their photos for his own use, making a collage/mural on one of his walls at home. Eventually, his obsession becomes dangerous. My point is that Williams was out of character in the film - sympathetic at first, then a little creepy, finally downright scary. In my opinion, this was his finest performance because not only could I feel bad for him, but I was also repulsed by what he became, yet I could understand how he could get from point A to point B. (One Hour Photo was actually the over riding reason why I bought my first digital camera back in 2002. The whole thing was so feasible). The same applies here. Sue Ann is a sympathetic character, and you get the feeling she’s just cutting these kids a break, getting them some booze so they can have a good time. Then allowing them a safe place where they won’t be at risk of being caught by the local cops. But her behaviour becomes a little bit too much, and by the time the kids realise that she needs to dial it down a bit, she’s already infiltrating their lives via social media. That’s a scary yet entirely likely scenario – all too easily done, I guess. Thanks to Spencer’s performance you kind of feel bad for Sue-Ann, while also feeling outraged, repulsed and finally un-nerved by her.
Sadly, the film has been released at the wrong time of year to optimise its audience. It has only played at the multiplex for a couple of weeks before being pulled in favour of bigger audience attracting tentpole movies. I’m hoping that it won’t sink without trace, and will find a bigger viewership on home screens in a few months. It really is worth seeing.
Copyright © 2010 - 2019 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.