US (2019) Dir. Tate Taylor

Never depend on the kindness of strangers. It didn’t do Blanche Dubois any good and there is a very good chance it might not always work out for you either, as you never know just into whose hands you are putting your life.

Teenager Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers) moves with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) to Erica’s hometown of Ohio following the collapse of Erica’s marriage. At school, Maggie quickly makes friends with Hayley (McKaley Miller), Andy (Corey Fogelmanis) – who later becomes her boyfriend – Darrell (Dante Brown), and Chaz (Gianni Paolo), and they hang out as a group.

Being underage, they can’t buy booze, but convince vet’s assistant Sue-Ann (Octavia Spencer) to buy it for them, but she then secretly calls the police and they are busted. Playing innocent, Sue-Ann invites the group to use her basement as their party hideout, which soon becomes a popular haunt for all the local kids. But Sue-Ann, now known as “Ma”, starts to get a little too pushy when the kids don’t visit and her behaviour takes an erratic turn.

I was expecting Ma to feature obnoxious American high school teens being slaughtered by a raging whack job stalker – i.e. my kind of film. Instead, we get obnoxious American high school teens in abundance but not so much in the way of any slaughtering. This is rather disappointing for a film labelled as a psychological thriller and from director Tate Taylor’s express desire to a make a film about something that was “messed up”.

“Messed up” is accurate in describing many revelations that arise as the film progresses and some of the people that inhabit this remote Ohio town, but for the first two thirds this is a straightforward backwoods America drama. It is only the last twenty minutes where it gets nasty in a graphic sense, prior to this, the nastiness comes from a sadly everyday source of people being despicable.

Sue-Ann is a portly, amiable, unassuming woman but quite lonely despite her easy going manner, getting more from the animals she helps treat than from the people she meets. That Sue-Ann would facilitate a group of teens’ unlawful activities would seem against her principles yet not so contrasting to her helpful nature, but you know what they say about appearances.

Once the kids get word of the newly christened Ma and her weekend shindigs in the basement of her off the road house, there is new swinging hotspot in town – everyone is invited for the price of their own drinks which Ma picks up for them. Occasional flickers of odd behaviour surface but Ma is charismatic enough to make it seem like a temporary aberration and the party continues.

For the first twenty minutes or so, the story is a woman in her 40’s is trying to reclaim her youth by mixing with today’s teens, we assume to offset her loneliness, with the endgame no doubt being it will all come crashing down when she learns she is not “down wiv the kidz” but simply a conduit for their partying. We should cringe at Ma’s music choices being 80’s dance classics like Funky Town and the kids humouring her dancing, but the affection that is formed does appear mutually genuine.

The script neatly defies these expectations by taking a different route to Ma’s clinginess towards the central cadre of Maggie and friends, initially going without explanation. The rejected invites to party lead to pestering text messages and phone calls, both angry then apologetic, before Maggie and Hayley break Ma’s strict rule of leaving the basement and entering the main house.

Now the mystery deepens as to what Ma doesn’t want the kids to see or know about. Is it related to her increasingly desperate and protean behaviour? Meanwhile, occasional flashbacks to Ma’s own school days offer another possible root for her actions, which some viewers might be able to piece together the story of before they have all aired, as the main players of the past are very much prominent in the present.

What this does, maybe deliberately, it is hard to tell, is make Sue-Ann a sympathy figure and in a tenuous way rather just in how she succumbs to the internal struggle of keeping her rage locked away for so long. Of course, the moral of the tale is two wrongs don’t make a right, and in targeting the wrong people to settle a score is a little sociopathic but it is hard not to argue that in this case the original instigators should reap what they sowed.

As mentioned earlier, the gloves come off in the final act and things get dangerous via some creative methods of torture and violent deaths, all executed with zero compunction and total conviction. There is a touch of the Saw movies in the restraints employed in the basement for the climax, some (if you’ll pardon the pun) black humour and straight up nastiness. The only caveat is many of the victims are deserving of their fate, though this is open to debate depending on one’s moral stance on revenge.

It might be seen as a flaw for Sue-Ann to have been painted in such an empathetic light once the trauma of her past has been revealed, but the reward is the fabulous turn from Octavia Spencer. It’s a though the role was written just for her as everything she does is so instinctive and natural, from being the kindly lady on the street to the life of the party and the angel of death, all inside 95 minutes.

Tate Taylor has directed Spencer before – including her Oscar win for The Help – and giving her a role that subverts her usual “friendly big mamma/moral anchor” type, provides Ma with its sole attraction. Otherwise this is a competent if mundane thriller that finds its suspenseful edge a little too late to be as effective as it aspires to be despite some interesting plotting.

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