There have been so many movies about the drama and trauma of high school that it's a wonder we haven't abolished it yet. Ma is another, focusing on the cruelty of kids and the pain of being an outsider, and the scare-infused comeuppance that stems from them. If you've seen the trailers for Ma, you already know that Octavia Spencer spends much of the movie menacing some teens, and that's pretty much the gist of it.
Though it's treading familiar ground, Ma is self-aware enough to make these well-worn high school paths fun ones--although its focus on being a story about high schoolers seems misplaced in the end. One expects new girl at school Maggie (Diane Silvers) to struggle to fit in and face off against your usual array of mean popular kids, but that never happens. Instead, Maggie gets approached by the typical teenage friend group, comprising: one jock boy (Gianni Paolo), one flirty party girl (McKaley Miller), one cute and sensitive love interest boy (Corey Fogelmanis), and one Black boy (Dante Brown). In the sadly typical fashion, additional character traits are not forthcoming. The kids instantly embrace Maggie and invite her to come to a party. It all goes pretty well.
When the party falls through, though, the kids hit a typical teenager fallback plan: procure booze; drink booze. Being 16, nobody can actually buy for themselves, so the kids stand in front of a shockingly accommodating liquor store, tempting passers-by to rip them off. Eventually, Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) happens past, takes pity on the kids, and gets them what they ask for. Almost immediately, Maggie--being the only kid in the area with a brain--has a bad feeling, but teens gonna teen.
Even after everything goes okay, Sue Ann just keeps, uh, showing up, using the internet to gather info on the kids and their parents, and slowly worming her way into their lives. The next time Maggie and her pals need booze, she not only provides it, she invites them to hang out in her unused basement rather than drive around after drinking. It quickly becomes the local teen hangout spot and everyone becomes pals with Ma, as Sue Ann is dubbed. Ma is a bit clingy, sure, but the kids appreciate a place to drink (that also provides pizza rolls!), and for the most part, it seems like Sue Ann is lonely and just needs some friends.
But while Maggie and her friends ignore Ma's general weirdness, the movie opens things up by digging into their parents' past. Turns out, Maggie's mom Erica (a solid but underused Juliette Lewis) is originally from this dinky town, having reluctantly returned after an escape to California and a recent divorce. Her new job as a casino waitress brings her into proximity of Mercedes (Missi Pyle) and Ben (Luke Evans), the jerk popular kids she went to high school with. Ben is the father of Maggie's would-be boyfriend Andy (Fogelmanis), and while Maggie's pals are pretty cool to each other, Ben and Mercedes are still the popular jerks from an '80s teen comedy. For Erica--and Sue Ann, who was at school with the same set of clowns, it turns out--the pain and tribulations of high school are still a big part of their lives. Neither has managed much progress; in Sue Ann's case, she almost literally regresses, hanging out with the teens for a second chance at being a cool kid.
All that history has to go somewhere, and Ma unwinds it slowly to lay a foundation of what's going on in the present, becoming a mix of something like Carrie, Flatliners, The Gift, and the recently released Greta. And at times, it's about as clunky as you'd expect that combination to be.
But it works because of Spencer undergirding the entire contraption, and the movie is at its best, spookiest, and most fun when director Tate Taylor lets her run with the character. She goes from charming and fun to believably dangerous and shockingly violent in a snap, and executes those shifts perfectly throughout the movie to give Sue Ann a boiling menace; she's your friend, but you wouldn't want to piss her off. When the movie focuses on the kids, it devolves into semi-dull slow-burn teen spookfest, complete with a few misdirecting jump scares. Whenever it trains back on Sue Ann, Ma takes on a great deal more depth and texture thanks to Spencer, who's capable of making Sue Ann a sympathetic figure and a simmering psychopath, often at the same time.
Sue Ann's unhinged nature works well enough to make the proceedings a lot of fun, especially toward the end of the movie as all the threads start to come together and the dread ratchets up. Evans, Pyle, and a surprising Allison Janney add some delightful despicability, and Spencer perfectly toes the camp line, keeping things fun and threatening. While it makes gestures that Ma might have more to say about what generations pass down to one another or how cruelty begets cruelty, the movie never commits, and just when you might be a little too close to rooting for Sue Ann, Ma goes out of its way to release some of that building pressure. As a result, it's mostly the safe kind of scary experience, one you don't need to think too hard about.
And as a fun thriller, Ma works very well. Its moving parts are competent and its characters relatable enough to keep the stakes up as things start getting dangerous. But it's all thanks to Spencer keeping the movie going. One wonders what Ma could have been with a little more effort put into other aspects, like spending more time with Sue Ann's generation, developing Maggie's friends a bit more, or expanding on some later additions to Sue Ann's personality. But for a movie that's ostensibly about wondering just when Octavia Spencer is going to lose it, and how drastically, Ma keeps you wanting to go back to the party, against your better judgment, because it really is a lot of fun.