The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - MA | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - MA

ma review
A middle-aged woman befriends a group of teens, but her sinister intentions soon become clear.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Tate Taylor

Starring: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, McKaley Miller, Luke Evans, Missi Pyle, Alison Janney

ma dvd

The 1960s and early '70s saw the heyday of the psycho-biddy genre, in which once glamorous female Hollywood stars like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Shelley Winters found themselves playing all manner of post-menopausal sociopaths. The movies varied in quality, but the actresses concerned always seemed to be taking relish in such unlikely career reboots (no star has ever appeared to be having as much fun with a role as Davis in 1968's The Anniversary).

Neil Jordan's Greta and Tate Taylor's Ma would seem to represent a revival of the psycho-biddy format. Isabelle Huppert embraced the campness of the genre in Jordan's film, but the movie around her failed to match her rampant energy. Not so with Ma, in which director Taylor and his leading lady Octavia Spencer are in psychotic sympatico. Ma the movie and Ma the character are as mad as one another.

ma review

'Ma' is the affectionate name adopted by Sue-Anne (Spencer), a middle-aged veterinarian's assistant who befriends the group of teens who ask for her help in purchasing some alcohol. Sue-Anne offers the kids the use of her basement, claiming she would rather they got wasted under her watchful eye than out in the woods, and they're happy to go along with the arrangement. Soon, word of Ma's place spreads and it becomes the hottest spot in town for underage drinkers.

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But Sue-Anne's intentions may be more sinister than she's letting on. Through a series of flashbacks to her early '90s schooldays, the film details how a group of her classmates befriended her, only to betray her trust in particularly nasty fashion. Sue-Anne now sets her sights on teenagers Maggie (Diana Silvers) and Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), whose respective mother (Juliette Lewis) and father (Luke Evans) were two of the kids responsible for a teenage trauma she has never recovered from.

ma review

With this sort of structure, Ma feels like a throwback to early '80s slasher flicks, in which innocent young people were forever being made to pay the price for the sins of their fathers and mothers. "I'm not my mother," Diana screams at Sue-Anne at one point, pleading her innocence, and the movie makes a point of illustrating just what nice kids she and Andy are, especially when offset against the awful actions we see their parents taking part in. I'm unsure whether the character of Sue-Anne was always envisioned as an African-American woman, but the casting of Spencer adds an intriguingly uncomfortable subtext around the subject of reparations and whether or not today's white Americans should be held accountable for the crimes of their forefathers. Or it could just be a Rodney Dangerfield comedy reworked as a slasher movie.

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For a mainstream thriller, Ma goes to some unexpectedly dark places, but the movie doesn't seem to realise just how jaw-dropping some of its plot beats are. The teens' initial visit to Sue-Anne's basement sees her force an underage boy to strip naked at gunpoint after he gets a little too cocky. When Sue-Anne reveals she's just kidding and that the gun isn't loaded, the kids laugh it off rather than hot-footing it out of there as quickly as possible. Later, when Sue-Anne goes postal and leaves a trail of corpses around her small town, nobody seems to notice that prominent figures have vanished, not even their oblivious kids. When the full extent of the prank played on the young Sue-Anne is revealed, it's genuinely horrific, and this may be the first mainstream American thriller to feature a cutaway shot of a penis.

ma review

Ma resembles something you might have picked up at your local VHS emporium back in the early '90s, but with a bit of tongue in cheek hindsight. Taylor, best known as the director of such cringe-worthy Oscar bait as The Help, is an odd choice for what is essentially a glossy exploitation flick, but he seems to be enjoying getting down and dirty in the recesses of genre cinema just as much as Spencer is. Like a low rent De Palma, Taylor peppers his movie with split-diopter shots, and when the movie goes nuts, boy, does he go for it - watch out for a shocking bit of vehicular blunt force trauma!

But this is Spencer's movie. I have to confess I tend to groan whenever I see her name in a cast list, as I usually know exactly what type of film it's going to be and exactly what type of role she's going to play. For too long, African-American actresses of Spencer's pedigree have been saddled with the sort of condescending 'dignified negro' roles Hollywood so often patronisingly offers women of colour over a certain age (it should be noted that Spencer is only two years older than Leonardo DiCaprio). Here, Spencer gets to roll up her sleeves, take the sharpest blade down from the knife rack and run amok, spitting foul-mouthed vitriol and spilling blood. Dignity be damned; such unbridled trash is a joy to watch.

Ma is on Netflix UK/ROI now.