Look, we’ve got to get one thing out of the way here. If you go into Ma expecting incisive commentary on American racial relations mixed into your horror (the film is content to only go surface-level in this regard), you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The film was directed by Tate Taylor — he of The Help (his first collaboration with Ma star Octavia Spencer) — and you’re getting a Tate Taylor film. That said, Ma is way more compelling than it has any right to be: If you like schlocky exploitation films, you’ve come to the right place.
First and foremost, that’s due to Spencer’s appropriately scenery-chewing portrayal of a deeply unhinged, deceptively meek-looking 40-something vet tech who never got over some deeply traumatic things that happened to her when she was in high school. A bit of a busybody with little to occupy her time outside of office hours (and sometimes during office hours, much to the chagrin of her irritable boss, played to perfection by Allison Janney), she sees an opportunity to finally fit in when she meets a — mostly white — group of local high school kids who ask her to buy them alcohol one Friday night.
Sue Ann fulfills their request for booze — she also grew up in their small Ohio town and knows how little to do there is — but she also makes sure to get their information and report them to the cops. It’s all part of her sneaky plan to insinuate herself into their lives: Thanks to social media, she soon connects all of the kids to their parents (who happen to be the same group of kids who tormented her back in the day) and proceeds to stalk them, obsessed with getting the gang to like her, despite their sizable age difference.
The key: offering them a private place to party (aka her basement — not creepy at all) and whatever snacks and booze they desire. Because she’s a woman and she looks so harmless, none of the kids in the group have any reason to suspect that something isn’t right with Sue Ann. Only 16-year-old Maggie (Diana Silvers) — the sweet, shy new girl in town — seems to be hip to the fact that there’s something wrong with the arrangement, but she doesn’t protest right away. She, too, is trying to fit in, and she’s happy to have found a friend group and maybe even a boyfriend so soon after her move.
It’s not often that we get to see an Academy Award-nominated actress go full-on horror villain (watching Spencer mutter the C-word as she plows down a horrible character with her truck is a thing to behold), although the film never seems quite sure whether it wants to categorize Sue Ann as such. We spend a lot more time with Sue Ann than we do we do with, say, Freddie Krueger, and the backstory the filmmakers slowly parcel out is intended to engender some sympathy for her, even as we discover later on in the film that Sue Ann had been up to some pretty awful things well before she met Maggie and her crew.
Up-and-comer Silvers — so good in a small role in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart — adds some balance to the film by way of her doe-eyed heroine, and it’s hard to imagine she won’t find her way into some meatier parts in the near future. She and Juliette Lewis (who plays her mom) have a nice rapport that could support a less-blood-soaked coming-of-age story — you know, one that doesn’t make this viewer regret lobbying for more equal-opportunity nudity in film. (You’ll definitely know what I’m talking about when you get there.)