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In Theaters: MA (2019)

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MA
(US - 2019)

Directed by Tate Taylor. Written by Scotty Landes. Cast: Octavia Spencer, Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, Luke Evans, McKaley Miller, Corey Fogelmanis, Allison Janney, Missi Pyle, Gianni Paolo, Dante Brown, Dominic Burgess, Tanyell Waivers, Tate Taylor, Heather Marie Pate, Margaret Eaton, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Matthew Welch, Skyler Joy, Nicole Carpenter. (R, 99 mins)

Octavia Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2011's THE HELP and she reunites with that film's director Tate Taylor for MA, a wildly entertaining, hard-R horror outing from Blumhouse. It's refreshing that neither lets their prestigious resumes--Spencer has logged two Oscar nods since, and Taylor went on to direct GET ON UP and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN--keep them from going all-in on this, as MA does a commendable job of emulating the kind of crowd-pleasing, audience-participation genre offering that was commonplace in the '80s. Spencer has a blast here, bringing to mind Isabelle Huppert's performance in this year's earlier "(blank)-from-Hell"'90s throwback GRETA, as well as Kathy Bates' unforgettable turn as Annie Wilkes in MISERY. MA has a shocking and disturbing event at its core, one that has haunted the title character and influenced every decision she's made since, but it never loses sight that its primary function is being a solid summer horror flick. And a surprising one at that, as it gets unexpectedly darker and more deranged as it goes on.






16-year-old Maggie Thompson (BOOKSMART's Diana Silvers, who looks like the Leelee Sobieski to Anne Hathaway's Helen Hunt) has just moved from San Diego to her mom Erica's (Juliette Lewis) podunk hometown in Ohio after her parents' bitter divorce (the specifics are never mentioned, but the fact that they went across the country and Maggie is starting at a new school in February are indicators that they're getting as far away from her father as quickly as possible). Shy Maggie becomes fast friends with an unlikely clique consisting of snarky troublemaker Haley (McKaley Miller), nice guy Andy Hawkins (Corey Fogelmanis), dudebro Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and affable sidekick Darrell (Dante Brown). With nothing to do except get drunk and high at the rock quarry, they hang out in the parking lot of a carryout and manage to convince lonely, middle-aged veterinary assistant Sue Ann Ellington (Spencer) to buy beer and liquor for them. This becomes a regular thing to the point where Sue Ann, nicknamed "Ma" by the crew, offers her basement to them as a safe place to hang out and party. Maggie immediately gets a strange vibe from Ma but goes along to get along and soon, word gets around the school that Ma's is the place to be. But everyone has to follow Ma's rules, the most strict being that the rest of the house is off-limits.


Of course, Ma is a lunatic who's barely hanging on by a thread. She's always dropping the ball at her job, unable to focus, and pissing off her boss (Allison Janney, another Oscar-winner in a strangely minor supporting role). Ma spends her free time stalking Diana and the others on social media and texting them and sending videos at all hours ("Don't make me drink alone!"). She even manipulates them by fabricating a story about having pancreatic cancer when they decide to ditch her following a violent outburst after Maggie and Haley have to use the upstairs bathroom when the basement one is occupied. There's a method to Ma's madness, and it all stems from a traumatic event from her past, when an awkward, teenage Sue Ann (Kyanna Simone Simpson) was the victim of an unspeakably cruel prank pulled off by Andy's dad Ben (Luke Evans in the present, Matthew Welch in flashbacks) and his friends--which included a young Erica (Skyler Joy)--that made her the laughingstock of the high school.



Obligatory De Palma split diopter shot, as required by law



This connection between the adult characters is established fairly early on, and doing it that soon is really the only major flaw of the film. The fate of one of them, Mercedes (Missi Pyle), a bitchy mean girl who grew up into a bitchy mean alcoholic who still blows Ben in a parked truck on his lunch break, seems like something's missing, or that it should have some additional resolution, considering how small the town is and how the local sheriff (director Taylor) already seems to have Ma on his radar. Logic lapses and minor quibbles in the big picture, but by fumbling these sorts of small details, it makes MA seem like a film that could've benefited from being maybe 10-15 minutes longer. It's small enough that it doesn't really detract from the effectiveness of MA, which counters its subject matter with some big laughs, whether it's a hard-partying Ma doing The Robot to Lipps Inc's "Funkytown," or flooring it and mowing someone down with her truck and muttering "Fuckin' cunt" into the rearview mirror while Earth Wind & Fire's "September" blares on her radio, a priceless Octavia Spencer moment that's undoubtedly going viral soon. There probably isn't much room for MA among the summer product rolling off the CGI assembly line, but it's one that will unquestionably enjoy a long life on streaming and cable.


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