The Dove Take:
Spencer tries to infuse her character with an empathetic likability—can you really hate somebody you call “Ma”? But like Maggie says, “There’s something off about Ma.” It’s up to the viewer to figure out whether she means Spencer’s character or the entire movie.
A lonely woman befriends a group of teenagers and decides to let them party at her house. Just when the kids think their luck couldn’t get any better, things start happening that make them question the intention of their host.
Sue Ann is the deliciously creepy role Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer has longed to play, and she does it with horrifying zeal in Ma, which is about how an unstable middle-aged woman pretends she’s the cool mother who buys teenagers beer, but only as a means to spend her vast array of demented, psychological horrors on them. She turns what they initially regard as an Ohio teenage heaven in the cellar into a Buckeye State basement of horrors.
Spencer and best friend/director Tate Taylor teamed up on the movie The Help, for which Spencer earned a Best Supporting Actress nod in 2012. One of her scenes in that movie involved her baking up some revenge on her former boss. In Ma, Spencer is allowed to take revenge to disturbing new levels. As Sue Ann, a disinterested assistant to a veterinarian played by Academy Award nominee Allison Janney, Spencer befriends five teenagers—Maggie (Diana Silvers), Haley (McKaley Miller), Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), Chaz (Gianni Paolo) and Darrell (Dante Brown). She invites them to party in the basement at her house in the woods as long as they follow two rules—don’t go upstairs, and always call her “Ma.”
Of course, it’s not much of a horror flick if things don’t slowly start to unravel. Led by Maggie, the teens start suspecting that Ma isn’t all goodwill-and-teenage-party-fun gal after all. That’s when Ma, apparently well-versed with rejection from a troubled past, starts going off the rails into stalkerism and Fatal Attraction-esque obsession, and begins using the tools of her trade as agents of her terror. She does things you might expect with scissors and knives—and things you might not expect with needle and thread, a pickup truck, an iron and a paintbrush. Some you might see coming and—cue: jump scare—some you won’t. Such is the genre.
The language, nudity, violence, and implied sex employed in the movie plummets it straight into the no-way-this-ever-gets-approved bin of Dove reviews. It may be novel, seeing an African American character as the murderer rather than the early-scene victim. It even allows Spencer to stretch her acting chops into areas she hasn’t been able to visit before. But once all this novelty wears off, what do you have?