Film Review: Ma

Octavia Spencer is a riot in director Tate Taylor’s Ma. The thriller is a lot of fun, with a gloriously deranged final act.

A group of teenagers in a small town are looking for an adult to buy them alcohol. Sue Ann agrees to make their purchase, and later invites them to use her basement to party. Their host, however, isn’t quite what she seems…

Written by Scotty Landes and directed by Tate Taylor, Ma is a thriller with a healthy dose of humour. Focusing on an adult protagonist and a group of teenagers, the film leads viewers a merry dance. From her initial appearance, it is very obvious that there is something odd about Sue Ann. Yet her secrets remain a mystery until a good way into proceedings. 

There are elements of horror that are scattered throughout the film, but Ma fits squarely in the thriller category. The trope of the unhinged lady and the younger victims was recently seen in Greta. Yet here Taylor knows when to withhold, when to play for laughs, and when to accelerate. The tension sometimes builds to a laugh; the film is very effective at this. Yet the undercurrent of tension is always present. The barmy final act amps up the zaniness walking the tightrope between terror and silliness. It is a combination which is most enjoyable. 

The narrative is careful to not reveal too much about Sue Ann. Viewers are posited with new girl Maggie and her group of friends. There are a number of aspects to Sue Ann’s obsession and mania. These work well in a film of this type, but perhaps doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Nonetheless, the fallout from her actions are wild and a lot of fun.

Taylor aims for the dramatic with frequent use of jump scares. The score plays into this acutely. Octavia Spencer (who is also an Executive Producer) is great in Ma. It is wonderful to see her play a prominent role, and inhabit a character very different from what we have seen before. She seems to be having fun with this role, and this shines through to viewers. Diana Silvers is decent, and has good chemistry with Juliette Lewis. For viewers who have grown up with Lewis since the days of 1991’s Cape Fear, it is rather odd to see her inhabit the mother of a teen role. Yet she is most convincing.

Taylor and Landes know what the audience wants from a film such as this, and do not disappoint. Ma‘s spiral into mania is tremendous fun. Hopefully this will lead to more leading roles for Octavia Spencer.

Film Review: The Help

The Help is a tearjerker that is also immensely uplifiting. The drama is likely to move even the most hard-hearted of souls.

Out of college in 1960s Mississippi, Skeeter is determined to become a writer. Trying to think of a new and different idea for a piece, Skeeter decides to interview her best friend’s housekeeper about working as a maid. Talking to Aibileen highlights the difficulties faced by black workers employed by middle class white families in the segregated South. As Skeeter begins to interview more maids, her friendship with their white employers becomes strained…

Based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help is a well-crafted drama that goes for emotional impact. With a running time of almost two and a half hours, the film could have felt overlong. Thankfully there is enough to absorb viewers for the duration.

Director and screenwriter Tate Taylor adeptly weaves the narrative, developing characters that the audience can engage with. The Help features an ensemble cast and various narrative strands. These are each approached with consideration; the development appears natural rather than rushed. The film deals with a serious subject matter, but character and story development are not neglected.

The tone of The Help is immensely important in making it such a watchable film. The film ranges from poignant drama to light amusement. Given that the film is based on an emotive topic from a distinctive era, it would have been unsurprising if The Help had taken a very serious tact. The moments of humour make the film more enjoyable, and strike a good contrast to the film’s more emotional scenes.

The different representations in The Help are perhaps too easily categorised. Men do not get much of a look in; Tate Taylor’s film is all about the female characters. There seem to be some rather broad strokes in depicting the main characters as good and bad; Skeeter and Aibileen are beyond reproach, while Hilly can come across as cartoonesque in her villainy. Nonetheless, other characters show more layers, such as Minny, Mrs Walters and Elizabeth.

Performances are excellent from the ensemble cast. Emma Stone is bright as Skeeter, while Viola Davis brings heart as Abileen. Bryce Dallas Howard is fantastic as Hilly, and Octavia Spencer offers both humour and emotion as Minny. Elsewhere, Jessica Chastain is adorable as Celia, while Sissy Spacek is well cast as Mrs Walters.

The costumes and production design are superb in capturing the period. Music is also used effectively in the film. Overall, The Help is a well executed production. When the poignant moments arrive, viewers will find it difficult not to react emotionally.