The creative forces behind Ma don’t know what kind of film they want to make.
Squandering a rare lead performance by perennial supporting player Octavia Spencer, who nonetheless remains committed to her craft, the latest effort from Tate Taylor (The Help; The Girl on the Train) likewise wastes a promising premise through disjointed writing and directing.
Though nothing good can come from loner Sue Ann (Spencer) buying a group of teens some alcohol, a one-time ask that becomes a habit and leads to the adult opening her basement as a party zone, the calm before the calamity still exists in a fairly fun atmosphere.
The rapport between the high schoolers is pleasant enough and energized by awkward, slightly creepy humor whenever their new grownup pal pops up. Even better is none other than Allison Janney as Sue Ann’s veterinarian boss, who comically chastises her employee whenever she catches her texting or generally being lazy at work.
Once certain characters’ identities are revealed and the flashbacks to Sue Ann’s own adolescence begin, Ma telegraphs its inevitable revenge fantasy, but there’s still plenty of room for intriguing suspense — especially once a person is (re)introduced and some Sharp Objects parallels are drawn.
Taylor and screenwriter Scotty Landes (Who Is America?), however, are in too big of a hurry to let the intriguing suspense play out in a believable manner. Spurned one too many times by her new crew, the needy Sue Ann — now firmly known as the titular identity — abruptly turns violent and the film abandons its measured storytelling and enters cuckoopants territory.
As she embarks upon her grisly escapades, the suddenly batshit awful film also raises some troubling racial issues around which it had previously managed to tiptoe. While the color of Sue Ann’s skin is practically never a factor for any character (herself included), her tragic history and wild actions in the present are fairly problematic for the simple fact that she’s one of the film’s few black characters.
In turn, certain stereotypes are reinforced and race relations overall take a few steps back. The wonky end results also leave one wondering just what the caucasian Taylor and Landes hoped to accomplish by having a crazy black woman terrorize a group of heroic, predominately white kids. Consistent with the rest of their collaboration, their logic is all a bit messy.
Grade: C-minus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande, and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Universal Pictures)