Between the exhilaration of great movies and the disappointment of bad ones lie the particular pleasures of trash. Ma isn’t a bad movie, and it’s sure as hell not trying to be a good one, but it scratches a particular itch that neither noble failures nor cranked-out hackwork can touch.
Diana Silvers, last seen (or not seen) in Booksmart, plays Maggie, a lanky 16-year-old whose mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), has just dragged them both back to the run-down town where she grew up. Maggie arrives awkwardly on her first day, and some of her classmates catch her unwrapping a sandwich with a handwritten note from her mom, but they’re so desperate for any variation in their monotonous routine that they invite the new girl to party with them rather than making fun of her. “Party” here means lingering outside liquor stores begging adults to buy them booze, then schlepping their cinnamon whiskey to a pile of rocks outside of town, but that’s where Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) intervenes. First she just takes their money and returns with a box full of bottles, but before long she’s offering the basement of her house as a safe place to get wasted. One boy, his jock’s confidence sharpened by tipsiness, baldly suggests that her basement could be a real party spot if she’d just make some adjustments: shove the couch over there, string some lights from the ceiling, maybe a table for beer pong. The next time they arrive, the modifications have been made.
The kids quickly take to calling Sue Ann “Ma,” a nickname suggested by Darrell (Dante Brown), who tries to play on their being two of the few black people in a largely white town to build familiarity between them. But Sue Ann seems especially drawn to Maggie and her eventual boyfriend Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), and she isn’t interested in merely fetching a tray of pizza rolls and letting the kids have their fun. Tate Taylor’s movie, which was written by Scotty Landes, doesn’t sound the klaxons as quickly as the movie’s trailers, but it’s clear from the moment Sue Ann data-mines the kids, joining Andy’s overheard first name with the surname written on the van from his father’s security company to stalk him on Facebook, that she’s got an agenda beyond making sure the town’s high school students don’t drink and drive.
At first, she just seems to want to be one of them. As the group in her basement grows, Ma wades in and gets down, and if the teenagers have any compunctions about her blasting ’70s funk instead of current pop, they don’t show it. It would be easy to make a woman in her late 40s doing the robot with a group of Gen Z kids a figure of fun, but Spencer doesn’t condescend to her, and she doesn’t take the turn into camp, either. Seeing Spencer in nurse’s scrubs triggers a sense memory of all the no-nonsense institutional figures she’s played, always with grace and often a knowing humor, but without the emotional bandwidth she takes up here. (That there’s more room for Spencer to create a complex character in Ma than in the movies in which she’s been nominated for Academy Awards, winning one, is a self-contained commentary on the state of the art.) Even when Spencer’s sole purpose in a scene is to lurk around a corner and spook an unsuspecting teenager, she brings a sense of intention to the role.
As Sue Ann’s plan comes into focus—I won’t spoil it except to say there are purposeful flashbacks to her own high school experience, and the character doesn’t work at a veterinary clinic by accident—Ma tilts further toward the absurd, eventually verging on Grand Guignol. (In auteur heaven, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’s Robert Aldrich is looking down and wishing he’d gotten his hands on the script.) Taylor, whose past credits include Get On Up and The Help, doesn’t have an especially firm grasp on the extremities of tone, and the movie is full of gaps and loose ends, but it hits home in a way a more dare-we-say-“elevated” treatment of the same material might not. A more high-toned version of this story would be more at pains to settle our feelings about its characters, to make sure we knew that when Maggie speaks cruelly to Sue Ann, she regrets it—or that if she didn’t, that she learned the lesson of her unkindness. Instead the movie takes place in a world where even the good people aren’t especially nice, where everything is gray and worn-down and even the nice part of town doesn’t look that nice. Everyone’s a bit of a jerk, which means no one walks away feeling clean. But it also means that the movie doesn’t force us to pretend that we’re better than we are. Its characters enjoy being cruel, and at least sometimes, we enjoy watching them. There’s truth in trash.