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Mommy Not So Dearest

Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer
Universal Pictures
 99 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByTate Taylor
Starring: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis    

Some actors have portrayed so many decent, upstanding characters that merely casting them in an unlikable role is enough to raise the entertainment value of a movie. Throughout his career, Gregory Peck was a paragon of decency (so much so that Atticus Finch was voted by the AFI as the greatest film hero of all time), but in one of his last leading roles, he played Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele. This casting against type allowed Peck to rant and rave and made what would have otherwise been a reasonably routine suspense film into a movie that’s still campily enjoyable today. That same thought process undoubtedly went through the mind of writer/director Tate Taylor, who approached Olivia Spencer with the proposition of portraying a nutcase villain in his horror film, Ma. Spencer agreed and is easily the best thing about the movie, but it’s not nearly as much fun as it should be.


Taylor, who had only minimal prior experience, struck it big in 2011 when he wrote and directed the highly popular (and Oscar-nominated) The Help. That film won an Oscar for Octavia Spencer, who had previously been relegated to minor parts mostly. However, Spencer quickly became typecast as the same type of sweet, understanding, sympathetic character she played in The Help. Apparently, she jumped at Taylor’s offer to go against character (and to defy the typical horror-film stereotype which dictates that black characters get killed off very early in the movie). She definitely threw herself into the role with gusto. However, Taylor never could decide whether he was making an Octavia Spencer movie or a nutty horror film, and the result is a badly fractured movie.


In Ma, Spencer plays Sue Ann Ellington, a mousy, put-upon veterinary assistant whose job entails all sorts of cleanup and grooming duty as well as putting up with the constant abuse from her boss (an entertaining Allison Janney). The one fringe benefit the job offers is giving Sue Ann ready access to some powerful animal tranquilizers. Sue Ann still lives in the same small town as most of her former high school classmates, but apparently hasn’t run across any of them in the 20 years or so since high school.


One graduate who did get out is Erica Thompson (Juliette Lewis), now a single mother with a high-school-aged daughter of her own, Maggie (Diana Silvers). Erica’s job as a cocktail waitress at the local casino keeps her out most nights and lets Maggie run around, virtually unsupervised, with some new friends. Unfortunately, the pickings for nightlife in Maggie’s new hometown are rather slim, so she and her friends resort to the time-honored high school tradition of going to the local quarry and getting liquored up. The only problem with these beautiful plans is a lack of anyone to buy liquor for Maggie and her friends. Enter Sue Ann, who insists the kids call her “Ma.”


The next time Maggie and company feel like partying, Sue Ann ups the ante by agreeing to host the party in her basement. The basement is pretty much a cluttered dump, but the kids don’t mind. Soon, word of Ma’s willingness to host teenage parties spreads, and the events get bigger and rowdier, with Ma herself dancing and carrying on right amid the festivities. All is not totally blissful at Ma’s, though, because she begins to exhibit some progressively more erratic behavior. The movie soon falls into a pattern. Ma does something outrageous like pulling a gun on one of the boys at the party and telling him to strip, then Maggie and friends decide that they are better off not going to Ma’s, party central or not. Then Ma calls and begs for another chance, and back they go. High school students in horror movies are notoriously slow on the uptake to realize when they are in danger, but these kids deserve some sort of prize for cluelessness.


At its best (or worst, depending on how you want to look at it), Ma is a lot of fun when Spencer just goes for it and cranks her loony meter up to 11. She has to supply the energy for the movie, because, as horror films go, Ma is rather tame. There are few shocks and little gore, except for one scene highlighted in the trailer in which Ma sews a girl’s mouth shut. In fact, except for the salty language, the movie could easily have gotten a PG-13 rating. But watching Spencer’s eyes light up when she stabs one of her victims-to-be with a giant syringe is a whole lot of fun. If Spencer had been allowed to play the character in that manner consistently, this movie could have been a modern-day hagsploitation classic.


However, director Taylor just doesn’t let the movie play out in such a campily entertaining fashion. I can only guess, but my hunch is that he felt the need to humanize Ma and make her into a latter-day version of Stephen King’s Carrie. So, Taylor inserts several flashbacks during the movie which show the teenaged Sue Ann (Kyanna Simone Simpson) becoming the butt of a huge practical joke in which the school’s star football player entices her into a rendezvous in the janitor’s closet.  When the two leave, almost the entire school is watching and laughing at Sue Ann’s humiliation. The adult Sue Ann doesn’t forgive or forget (although it’s conceivable she forgot since she let the whole matter rest for the 20 years before Ma begins).


Octavia Spencer is such a consummate actress that she never surrenders to the temptation to turn her character into a new version of Mommy Dearest. So, she actually engenders some audience sympathy from the cruel treatment her character received as a teenager (a good performance by Simpson helps here as well). But the writers are never able to combine those more serious scenes and the campier ones into a screenplay that holds together. In fact, Ma’s mood swings from one scene to the next catch the attention of the teenagers for whom she provides a party pad, making the attempts of the screenwriters to gloss this over seem fairly ridiculous.


Like this spring’s Greta, the enjoyment for the audience in Ma is the sight of an excellent actress cutting loose. But, unlike Isabelle Huppert in the earlier movie, Octavia Spencer is never allowed to let her inner demons loose fully. The result is a movie that has pretensions of being a modern-day epic tragedy of a wronged woman seeking revenge for legitimate wrongs she has suffered. But it’s hard to take a movie seriously when it prominently features a scene involving sewing someone’s mouth shut. Ma has enough entertainment value to make a few individual scenes a hoot to watch, as evidenced by the cleverly edited trailers for the movie. But, as a whole, Ma misfires as both serious drama and camp melodrama.

In this clip, Octavia Spencer tries to get back in the good graces of Diana Silvers and friends.

Read other reviews of Ma: 

Ma (2019) on IMDb