Hey Ma, can you shake it like a Polaroid picture?
6/10 - Octavia Spencer is fantastic as a lonely middle-aged woman who has an ulterior motive for befriending a gang of teenagers - but Ma is less thrilling than it should be.
Release Date: 
Friday, May 31, 2019
Written by: 

In Ma, Octavia Spencer plays a lonely middle-aged woman who becomes a gang of teenagers' best friend - and their worst fear.


Hot on the heels of Isabelle Huppert's scene-stealing turn as a middle-aged psychopath targeting young women in Greta, another acclaimed actress, Octavia Spencer, now has her own camp horror vehicle - as she stars in director Tate Taylor's Ma.

Ma is quite a different beast to Greta, though. Set in a small Ohio town rather than New York, it's a place where there's little for kids to do, and as a teen, your new boyfriend's dad probably knew your mum in high school.

Moving back to town from California are Maggie (Diana Silvers), a good-natured 16-year-old, and her mum Erica (Juliette Lewis), who has taken a mildly demeaning job waiting tables at a local casino. Keen to make friends in high school, she agrees to go out drinking with her schoolmates.

Unable to buy booze, they approach a kindly middle-aged veterinary assistant, Sue Ann (Spencer), later known to the gang as 'Ma', who not only takes their alcohol order but becomes a den mother to the teens after offering them her basement as a place to party away from their parents and the police.

They are free to set up their new party pad on one condition, that they don't go upstairs and into her home.

Although the teens are vaguely unnerved by Ma's enthusiasm for their company and pursuit of them on social media, the offer of a place to indulge their wild sides proves too good to turn down, and soon many more of Maggie's classmates find themselves downing shots, drunkenly snogging, or passed out on the sofa.

Maggie even finds love with Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), a sensitive member of the group, who is looking to escape from the watchful eye of his father Ben (Luke Evans).

However, through flashbacks to Ma's own high school days, it soon becomes clear that there's more to her love of indulging youngsters than wanting to keep them off the streets, and a darker side to her desire to recapture her youth.


It's a joy to see Spencer, an exceptional actress, but one whose talents are often used in worthy supporting roles, chew the scenery as a character whose psychopathic nature is always lurking below the surface of blameless respectability.

Even when Ma is smiling and helping pet owners at her day job, there's a sense she'd as happily dispatch their beloved mutts as patch them up.

Her character has plenty of laugh-out-loud lines, which occur each time she can't quite keep her long-suppressed anger at the world at bay.

Yet, The Help director Taylor's first real foray into pulpy horror doesn't quite lift off.

This is because beneath Spencer's performance the plot is a conventional one featuring well-worn tropes about outsiders seeking revenge and the sins of past generations being visited on the libido-driven young, as we've seen before in films as varied as Carrie and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

This needn't necessarily be a problem, but Maggie aside, who is compellingly portrayed by Silvers, Ma's potential teenage victims are relatively uninteresting.

At a time when films like Assassination Nation and Eighth Grade have begun to truly get to grips about the effects of social media on Generation Z, there's an artificiality to its limited engagement with its central group of teens. They're more plot devices for Ma to manipulate than fully rounded post-Millennial characters.

All this means that the horrors of Ma's final act don't quite hit home - as there's not really the emotional gut punch to seeing characters face a twisted form of justice that there is in the best of the genre.

The balance between comedy and horror is tilted too far in favour of the former, and for all the amusement to be had from Spencer's performance - which includes everything from joyous disco dancing to quiet, seething fury - Ma lacks the edge of the gory B-movie horrors and exploitation films it draws upon.

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