Ma ★★★½

Shortly after moving from San Diego to her mother's drab hometown in Ohio, Maggie, a teenager played by Diana Silvers, befriends four other high schoolers who invite her out for a night of drinking. After several unsuccessful attempts to talk an adult into buying booze for them, these kids finally convince Sue Ann Ellington, a middle-aged veterinarian assistant played by Octavia Spencer, to help secure the goods. Much to their surprise, this lonely, but radiantly benevolent woman offers to let them hang out and party in the basement of her isolated rural home so that they will not get into trouble by driving while intoxicated.

During the days that follow, “Ma” becomes a popular figure with the local teens, who show up in numbers to her basement for alcohol-soaked fun, but mystery lurks around the edges of this strange arrangement. Why is this older woman ingratiating herself into the cliques of high schoolers? Is she just a lost soul looking to relive her youth? Why does she forbid her guests from venturing upstairs to the main floors of her house?

The 2019 psychological horror film, Ma, marks a radical departure both for Spencer, who is best known for motherly, yet sassy roles in dramas like Hidden Figures, and for the glossy filmmaker, Tate Taylor, who directed Spencer for her Academy Award-winning performance in The Help. This is the second time this year that a prestigious and critically-esteemed actress has shown a gleefully evil side in a lowbrow scare outing, after Isabelle Huppert's sinister turn in the underrated gem, Greta, and these shamelessly schlocky outings both recall the heyday of gothic-laced 1960s and 1970s drive-in exploitation, when stars like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Shelley Winters eschewed their comparably stuffy early cinematic victories for parts in trashy psychotic heroine movies. By fully embracing the campy spirit of this offbeat project, Spencer delivers yet another tour de force work and switches effortlessly between displays of assertive wildness, needy friendliness, wounded rejection, and, finally, full-tilt slasher sadism, all the while showcasing her ability to convey multilayered emotions with her eyes.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is more to Ma than its overplayed preview trailers suggest, and that the narrative takes its leisurely time to establish the dynamics of the uncanny predicament that befalls our teenaged protagonists. Silvers (Booksmart) elicits our sympathy in a relatable performance as Maggie, the new kid on the block who is the first to notice that things are not quite what they seem in Ma's basement. The always-memorable Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers) is well-cast as Maggie's concerned mother. Luke Evans (The Fate of the Furious) is featured in one of this film's most uncomfortably horrific moments as the father of another teen. Allison Janney (Juno, The Help) is a welcome addition in a too-brief role as a veterinarian. This movie belongs to Spencer, though, and she steals the glow during her every second on the screen.

Be advised that Ma earns its hard-R rating, and that things take a supremely brutal turn during the final half hour. A part of me wishes that this film had followed through in full with its exploitation horror leanings and taken its gory outcome to the extreme, but the end result still packs a solid punch.

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