“Ma,” a clammy, sloppy, sometimes funny thriller about an enabler of underage drinking, could and maybe should have been advertised as “from the director of ‘The Help’ and the producer of ‘Get Out.’” The cognitive dissonance of seeing those two titles in one phrase is pretty good preparation for the crossed signals and jammed circuits that make this movie interesting.
Which isn’t the same as good, exactly. The director (Tate Taylor) and the screenwriter (Scotty Landes) take a premise with all kinds of potential — a middle-aged woman first befriends and then terrorizes a bunch of teenagers — and find various ways to mess it up, while also delivering a few jolts and laughs along the way. And also leaving room for a handful of odd and engaging performances.
The four best parts of the movie are Juliette Lewis, Diana Silvers, Allison Janney and, supremely, Octavia Spencer, who plays the title character, a veterinarian’s assistant also known as Sue Ann. (Janney, drawing on leftover grouchiness from “I, Tonya,” plays the veterinarian.) Lewis and Silvers are Erica and Maggie, a mother and daughter who have recently moved back to Erica’s hometown. She takes a job at the local casino, and her daughter enrolls at the local high school, which was her mother’s alma mater as well as Sue Ann’s. There she befriends a group of mildly rebellious students, developing a crush on one named Andy (Corey Fogelmanis).
It turns out that Andy’s father (Luke Evans) also went to high school with Erica and Sue Ann, a fact that takes on greater significance as the present-day intrigue develops. After reluctantly agreeing to buy liquor for the kids, Sue Ann, insisting on the nickname Ma, invites them to her rambling house in the middle of the woods. She has a basement that serves as a perfect party room. Before long it’s a thriving kiddie speakeasy, with minimal rules — don’t go upstairs is the main one — and decidedly lax adult supervision.
There’s a catch, of course. There are a few too many catches, to be honest. Maggie and her pals — Haley (McKaley Miller), Darrell (Dante Brown) and Chaz (Gianni Paolo), in addition to Andy — start to get a little creeped out about their new friend. For her part, Sue Ann turns out to be motivated not so much by pathetic loneliness as by a long-simmering, pathological desire for revenge.
To say what exactly she wants revenge for would be an unconscionable spoiler, but “Ma” comes close to spoiling its own surprise with flashbacks that hint heavily at a traumatic youthful humiliation. Some of the parents of Maggie’s clique were involved in it, though some were not. It’s hard to tell if Sue Ann’s stalkerish, sadistic behavior is opportunistic, or if she has been carefully planning to punish the children for the sins of their mothers and fathers.
It kind of doesn’t matter, and it also kind of does. Spencer’s performance embraces all possibilities. She’s warm, needy, scary, conspiratorial and witty, overriding any concerns for coherence with the sheer force of her personality.
But the movie, like Ma’s young friends, lets her down. The teenagers are fickle, cruel and entitled, dropping her as quickly as they had embraced her when she starts acting weird. They are also just kids, wrapped in an aura of innocence whatever their age-appropriate transgressions.
As a genre exercise, “Ma” offers some juicy, nasty kicks, but it also gestures — with maddening coyness — in the direction of the kind of socially aware allegory that made “Get Out” (and “Us”) so fascinating. Sue Ann is black, and all but one of Maggie’s friends are white, but race is mentioned only once, even though it casts a heavy shadow on the back story. There seem to be no other African-American adults in this town, and Ma, though she lives with her daughter (Tanyell Waivers), has no other family or friends.
Whether Taylor and Landes are aiming for subtlety or deniability — whether “Ma” is a critique of racial thinking or an experiment in color-blindness — is a question to ponder, if you’re so inclined. Either way, the movie ties itself up in knots as it tries to be provocative without giving offense, and offering more complacency and comfort than terror.
In essence, “Ma” serves up a hand-wringing, guilty case against reparations, painting an attempt to find redress for past crimes as monstrous and leaning heavily on an archetypal assumption of black scariness. “What happened to you was wrong, and we should have stopped it,” someone says to Sue Ann late in the film. Coming when it does in the action, the line is more like a punch line than an apology. The joke is still on the title character, who made the mistake of supposing that her feelings, or her life, might matter.
Rated R. You kiss your mother with that mouth? Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes.