Movie Review: ‘MA’ – a crazy acting vehicle for Octavia Spencer that knows no boundaries

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James C. Clay // Film Critic

MA

Rated R, 99 minutes.
Director: Tate Taylor
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis, Luke Evans, Corey Fogelmanis, Tanyell Waivers

Breathe in, breathe out. You smell that? It’s a big heaping spoonful of a trashy movie, and it smells more refreshing than any big blockbuster remake has all summer.

This piece of garbage is MA, directed by Tate Taylor (Yes, the guy that directed THE HELP). It’s a movie that’s so plugged into the audiences’ consciousness that it goes for the more salacious moments, even when you think it has already gone too far. Octavia Spencer is giving 50 different looks in this role that has her walking down the tightrope of a person who is initially likable, then incredibly pathetic, and finally fairly tragic (but still in a pathetic way). MA is a movie that finds its own brand of cheap thrills from keeping the plot predictable. It swerves from expectations and drives head-on into the deranged.

The story opens on Maggie (Diana Silvers), a 16-year-old who just moved to her mother Erica’s (Juliet Lewis) small Mississippi town to restart their life. Maggie makes fast friends with a rowdy group of students (McKaley Miller, Gianni Paolo and Danet Brown) who were, no doubt, cast straight out of a CW drama. They pack up in an old van driven by baby-faced Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) and are searching for an adult to buy them booze so they can drink it by a pile of rocks.

A lonely vet worker Sue Ann Ellington (Spencer) rolls up walking a three-legged dog and obliges the teens once she noticed that the van belongs to a local security company owned by Andy’s father Ben (Luke Evans). The kids start boozing at Sue Ann’s place, aka Ma’s house, where there are only a few rules: no cussing, no going upstairs and no driving. Ma starts to become a bit extra in her attachment for the kids. She texts way too much and wants to start drinking when Judge Judy and Dr. Phil come on the TV.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

This story hits every familiar beat in “Single White Female” cannon of an innocent character turning crazy (but with constant swerves right down to the casting of Spencer, who is, of course, an African American woman). This is a story that’s about a person of color being bullied by a group of predominately WASPY teens with perfectly quaffed hair and letterman jackets. To say this film isn’t, at least, unintentionally politically charged would be an understatement.

It’s problematic that two white males are the ones to tell this story for better or worse; it’s not really the goal of Taylor and Landes to make a film that’s politically correct. If GIRL ON THE TRAIN was Taylor’s launch into the minor leagues of dime store novel material, MA sees the filmmaker graduating to the majors in his second effort. In fact, this is one of the more unpredictable movies to hit theaters this year.

Spencer takes things to cringe-inducing places that you wouldn’t expect. It’s understandable and valid that in a post-GET OUT world that we would certainly be more critical on how people of color and, especially, women of color are depicted on the big screen. The success of this film depends on how much milage you get out of Spencer’s increasingly unhinged antics.

MA is a movie that toes the line of comedy and horror in a way that plays the audience like a marionette. It’s as if Taylor’s directing instincts are above this sort of material by how self-aware the film is, but he and Spencer relish in every opportunity to shock and make the audience belt out audible squirms. Sometimes subtlety in films doesn’t work as MA doesn’t have a subtle bone in its body. This movie isn’t about a message, it’s a cruel piece of cinema that wants you to maniacally laugh at the twisted lengths this film is willing to travel to get a reaction. Some may find it cheap. We may already have enough garbage in this world, but you can’t appreciate the treasure without celebrating the trash.

MA opens nationwide on Friday.

Grade: B