No Concessions: “Ma” is a fun flick flawed by lack of depth with source material

I first became familiar with Octavia Spencer during her guest spot on ABC’s Ugly Betty. She played a kind, federal worker who aids Betty’s father in becoming a legal citizen. After falling smitten, and then obsessed, she becomes violent when the affection is not reciprocated.

This is the gist of Ma with Spencer’s Sue Ann Ellington seeking genuine companionship. Unfortunately, Betty did a better job of cementing Spencer’s motives for her insanity, leaving much to be desired.

Directed by The Help‘s Tate Taylor, Ma centers its story in Someplace, Ohio where Juliette Lewis and her daughter Maggie return to her hometown. Maggie quickly befriends a mean girl, pseudo-jock, token black and cute boy next door. They spend their weekends perusing the city limits with booze and drugs. Typical Midwest teen shenanigans.

They cross Sue Ann’s path when she agrees to buy their adult goods. This kind gesture extends into an invitation to party in Sue Ann’s basement, with the teens’ safety in mind. Soon Ma – as she is affectionately coined – houses the wildest weekend parties known to Franklin High.

The teens think they have it made until they break one of Sue’s house rules. It’s here our young protagonists should have noticed something was off, but of course that would have ended the film. This initiates the descent into Sue’s disturbed psyche.

For the most part, everything works as it should in this kind of film. It follows the dots, not breaking new ground, but all fun the same. I enjoyed the slices of comedy, though most were unintentional laughter due to Sue Ann’s violence.

Spencer is great lifting the film somewhat beyond its basic narrative. She balances her character’s unbalance perfectly, conning everyone into believing she’s harmless. Despite strong co-stars in Luke Evans, Allison Janney and Lewis, Spencer is the only one given any actual depth.

While the trailer revealed some major scenes, the film did a good job of holding the full plot to its chest. Spencer’s Sue Ann isn’t just a violent drunk, but her psychosis is steeped in past childhood trauma. Unfortunately it’s this backstory that deserved more polishing.

Flashbacks throughout the film are used to shed light on the origin of Sue Ann’s loneliness. But the singular incident doesn’t warrant the treachery she hands out in the current day. Along with a few plot lines left hanging, it prevents this twist on a familiar formula from being a greater product. Two and a half stars for Spencer’s performance and being entertained.

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