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'Ma' review: Octavia Spencer tries her hand at horror, with mixed results

Haley (McKaley Miller) finds herself in a stitch-y

Haley (McKaley Miller) finds herself in a stitch-y situation with Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) in "Ma."  Photo Credit: Universal Pictures / Anna Kooris

PLOT A lonely woman becomes obsessed with a group of local teenagers.

CAST Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers, Juliette Lewis

RATED R (strong violence and language)

LENGTH 1:39

BOTTOM LINE The star and director of “The Help” try their hand at horror, with mixed results.

In Tate Taylor’s “The Help,” Octavia Spencer played a maid, Minny Jackson, who served her boss a pie with a decidedly unsavory filling. Spencer serves up worse than that as a psychotic predator in Taylor’s latest, “Ma.”

It’s quite a pivot from “The Help,” the Civil Rights Era drama that turned Spencer into an Oscar winner (for supporting actress) and boosted the career of her longtime friend Taylor. Even so, Spencer has never been the main star of her own film. “Ma” gives Spencer the spotlight she deserves, and allows Taylor (“The Girl on the Train”) to make his first foray into the currently hot genre of horror.

The heroine of “Ma” is Maggie (Diana Silvers,  “Booksmart”), a 16-year-old from San Diego who moves to a dead-end, Middle American town with her single mom (a hard-edged Juliette Lewis). Maggie falls in with rebellious Hayley (McKaley Miller) and her friends, whose main activity is drinking at the local rockpile; alcohol is obtained by loitering outside a liquor store hoping a grown-up will make a purchase for them. Enter Sue Ann (Spencer), a seemingly friendly woman in hospital scrubs.

“Shoot, we used to hang out there all the time,” Sue Ann says, looking nostalgic for her own rockpile days. Sue Ann not only becomes the kids’ regular buyer, she encourages them to party somewhere safer — like, say, her house. Sue Ann becomes affectionately known as Ma, and soon her basement is the hottest spot in town.

Written by Scotty Landes, “Ma” is built on Sue Ann’s cool exterior slowly crumbling to reveal the damaged, dangerous monster inside. That means Spencer has to sell us the role — but she does so with only partial success. We believe in Sue Ann’s emotional wounds and daily frustrations (her snappish boss is played by a scene-stealing Allison Janney), but not in the frightening depths of her darkness. Spencer gives us subtlety, when what we need from her is insanity.

“Ma” features solid performances, including from Luke Evans as a local creep and from Taylor himself as a stern cop, but the story lacks focus and the climax isn’t as wild as it could be (though it does include some inventive sadism with a sewing kit and a hot iron). All told, “Ma” adds up to a decent B-picture, though perhaps not the star-launching turn Spencer and Taylor intended.

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