Chillin’ with Ma, a troublingly odious but bizarrely sensitive vignette of cruel manipulation, seems like a better idea than it is in reality. Spread over multiple genres, this jumpy little curio finds itself in the same territory as Greta and The Intruder. It offers whispers of silver-screen psychos like Rebecca De Mornay’s Mrs. Mott and Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. An unquestionably talented Tate Taylor (The Girl on the Train and The Help) navigates a well-trodden B-movie path with ease; depending on who you are, this may be good or bad. If you’re fine with an old formula being used proficiently, stay, but if you came seeking something fresh, bolt.
Here, we follow naïve teen Maggie (Diana Silvers), who relocates with mum Erica (Juliette Lewis) to small-town Ohio. There, she falls in with the cool kids at school, who invite her to party at a disused quarry. Underage, the bunch try to get strangers to buy them booze, but they’re out of luck until “kindly” Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) reluctantly agrees. This middle-aged veterinary technician doesn’t plan to leave the encounter there though, tracking them down on social media and crafting a nutso plan fuelled by loneliness and obsession. After deviously calling the cops, who break up the clandestine shindig, she offers up her basement the following day. This gives the group a safe, rule-free place to quaff their libations, inviting some unfamiliar warmth into Sue Ann’s home to boot. Fun is had all round, red flags abound, and it’s not long before the crazy is dialled up. Oh, and you get a can of beer for every genre trapping spotted here.
Ma, with its distinctly Blumhouse vibe, is somewhat of a departure for a director known more for sleeker, award-worthy flicks. Taylor probably wasn’t the best pairing for Scotty Landes’ part-hackneyed, part-unpredictable script, but he certainly wasn’t the worst either. On the one hand, the material might be too low-rent for an upscale director to pull off with assurance. On the other, his aptitude for film-making does lend some force to the wilfully trashy story, removing the need for many a cheap trick. This ensures Sue Ann – still evidently licking wounds from a past trauma viewers learn about steadily through flashbacks – isn’t the one-dimensional villain she could so easily be.
Whatever you think of Taylor’s suitability here, Spencer was undoubtedly made for this role. The talented actress – rarely ever given central characters – takes it on with sweary relish. Conveying one of her most layered performances to date, she toys with her audience, pelting them with hard-hitting issues one minute and rousing their twisted delight the next. She swings aggressively between relatable vulnerability and frenzied lunacy, eliciting lump-in-throat empathy right before sickening abhorrence. While Sue Ann’s full-throttle insanity is needlessly excessive in parts, some suspension of disbelief is always required for movies of this nature. Things topple with the younger cast members. Bar Silvers, they don’t extend much to write home about, which is sort of surprising given their domination of the film’s 100-minute runtime. It indicates Taylor and Landes sought to make Ma first and foremost a very adult gig, with the teenagers exploited as mere puppets in their storytelling. Even if that’s so, their flat treatment allows for little character buy-in, and that’s never a favourable result. Spencer is left to pick up the slack, and that she does, providing a real get-on-board-or-go-home affair. The question is, which will you choose to do?