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In a perfect world an actress with the talent and charisma of Octavia Spencer would get any role that suits her, leading or otherwise. But it has been her experience, and indeed, the experience of many actresses, that talent often doesn't mean as much to Hollywood producers, as having an actress who is an example of mainstream notions of attractiveness.
This was part of the motivation for Director Tate Taylor, Spencer's former roommate, and close friend, when he began work on Ma, a new horror movie from the Hollywood horror factory, Blumhouse. Taylor had great intentions of crafting a part intentionally for his friend, one that was slightly off the beaten path, but a surefire mainstream lead.
Ma stars Octavia Spencer as the awkward, and put-upon SueAnn. SueAnn lives quietly as a vet tech in a small town in Ohio. She hates her boss, played in a cameo by fellow Academy Award winner, Allison Janney, and she appears to be content to live a life of quiet desperation until one day when she is approached by a group of teens seeking an adult to buy them alcohol.
Through convoluted means, SueAnn recognizes a boy in the group, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) as the son of her High School crush turned nemesis, Ben (Luke Evans), and a scheme unfolds in her mind. SueAnn buys the alcohol for Andy and his friends, Maggie (Diana Silvers), Haley (McKaley Miller), Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and Darrell (Dante Brown), and then proceeds to get them caught by the cops.
Having had their regular drinking spot compromised, the kids look for a new place to hang and run across SueAnn again. SueAnn proves eager to help. Not only does she buy the booze, she offers the kids the use of her basement at her home just outside of town. As long as they promise to drink responsibly, she will welcome them.
Maggie is the first to begin to question SueAnn's intentions. Like Andy, Maggie's mom, Erica (Juliette Lewis), also went to High School with SueAnn, and unlike Ben, she raised her daughter to question when something is too good to be true. As the party gets bigger, with other kids turning out, and more elaborate parties, as the basement gets tricked out, Maggie becomes more and more suspicious of the motivations of the woman who insists on being called, Ma.
All of that sounds pretty good in theory. As executed however Ma is much more of a mess. Taylor and Spencer appear to have the wrong conception for the character of SueAnn/Ma. While Spencer plays her as sad and vulnerable, the movie insists on trying to make a traditional horror thriller, and the disconnect between the performance and the movie is palpable. While the score insists that SueAnn is Jason Voorhees, we are watching a slow burn in Spencer's performance, and it never works together.
The marketing of Ma doesn't help matters as it appears to spoil what the filmmakers appear to treat as a twist. Ma is directed by Taylor as if SueAnn's growing murderous madness is supposed to be a surprise. We are apparently supposed to be shocked when SueAnn goes from being a lonely wallflower desperate for some positive attention to a freewheeling psychotic bent on revenge.
Unfortunately, that aspect of the movie is all over the film's trailer and other marketing materials. The film is sold heavily on Spencer's growing malevolence at the expense of the movie that was made. The marketing undermines the performance of Octavia Spencer as nearly as much as the direction, which appears to have been cobbled together to, perhaps, match the marketing.
I have zero evidence to back this up, but I do wonder if perhaps the original intentions of Ma were upended by producers eager for something that would be easier to market and profit from. Perhaps, theoretically, Tate Taylor, who has made good movies in the past such as The Help, made the movie I wish Ma was, one that is more in line with the layered and nuanced performance of Octavia Spencer, only to have it turned into a more straight ahead horror movie.
Neither Taylor or Spencer have indicated in any way that my theory holds water, but it is a reasonable theory. The editing and scoring of Ma could have altered the movie from what they had intended. One piece of evidence for that theory comes in the casting of Allison Janney as Spencer's boss. Janney is barely existent in Ma, and you can't help but wonder why?
Why did the makers of Ma hire an Academy Award winning actress in Allison Janney, a highly recognizable face and sought after performer following her Awards victory, and give her a role with five lines. It makes no sense, unless you consider the idea that perhaps her role was larger in a different cut of Ma.
Whatever the reason, the Ma we got is one that appears mangled, garbled in execution. Octavia Spencer is playing nuanced with a growing madness, and the movie believes she's part Jason Voorhees, and part Michael Myers in a smock, and a sad looking wig. I don't know if there actually is a better version of Ma, but this certainly isn't the best version of this movie that could have been made.