For nearly as long as onscreen teenagers have been foolish enough to drink and party and have sex, horror movies have found a thousand gloriously gory ways to punish them for it.
Ma is a mostly standard variation on that theme, but one just silly and self-aware enough — and blessed with a much-better-than-it-needs-to-be central performance by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer — to justify approximately 100 minutes of future memes and escalating madness.
It will take a few expository scenes to actually meet Ma; first comes Maggie (Glass‘s Diana Silvers), a bee-stung beauty new to the drab-looking small town that her mother (Juliette Lewis, great in her too-few scenes) grew up in, and has now slunk back to as a fresh divorcée.
There’s not much friction in Maggie’s new school, at least; she eats exactly one sandwich alone in the cafeteria before being recruited by the cool kids, including requisite bad girl Haley (McKaley Miller) and a sweet dreamboat named Andy (Corey Fogelmanis).
On a Friday night, they find themselves in the same loop that most 16-year-olds with drivers’ licenses and not much else on the agenda do: driving around aimlessly, looking for trouble. They get lucky, finally, with Sue Anne (Spencer) — the only adult willing to front them at the local liquor store.
Reluctant at first, Sue Anne agrees to stock up on vodka and Fireball if they’ll keep it safe by partying in her basement. Soon, she’s actually fixing up the place, telling them to call her Ma, and even joining them for a few Jello shots. Ma’s spot is like, so lit, you guys!
So far, so many small misdemeanors. But as it becomes clear that many of the kids’ parents went to the same high school as Sue Anne, a darker and deeper backstory starts to come into play.
It’s better not to know too much more, except that Allison Janney has a great, acerbic turn as Sue Anne’s disapproving boss at the local veterinarian hospital (both also starred together in director Tate Taylor’s 2011 breakout The Help), and that there is a stunt penis late in the film that you cannot unsee.
The kids are all appealingly dewy, though they’re onscreen mostly just to react, look pretty, and make remarkably poor choices. If anything, you wish Taylor had given more of the movie over to the grownups: Lewis’s plucky, kind-hearted cocktail waitress; Luke Evans as the brooding widowed father of Andy; Missi Pyle as his tipsy, venomous mistress.
Even as the story descends into full bloody camp at its crescendo, Spencer holds the more ludicrous plot threads together. Jaw set, wide wet eyes blazing with betrayal, she belongs to the sisterhood of classic horror protagonists like Sissy Spacek’s Carrie — an outcast pushed carelessly to edge of everything, until she roars back to watch it all burn. B