Ma is the story of Sue Ann Ellington (Octavia Spencer, a fortysomething woman who still lives in the same small town in Ohio where she went to high school. So do several other people, including all of the principle figures in an exceptionally vicious prank by which the shy, introverted Sue Ann was sexually abused and humiliated in front of the whole school. All these years later, Sue Ann remains gripped by the ghosts of this trauma, unable to completely function, and when an opportunity presents itself to revenge herself on the people who brutalised her so, she leaps at the chance. It's boilerplate and all, but in Spencer's hands, it's also a surprisingly full character study, empathising with Sue Ann even while recoiling from the extent to which her psychotic urges manifest themselves; it's a surprisingly persuasive look at how high school bullying - in this case, bullying inflected by race, though Ma avoids going too far into the racial implications of its story* - tendrils into the present, rotting and ruining everything.

Ma is also the story of 16-year-old Maggie Thompson (Diana Silvers), who moves from San Diego to the small Ohio town where her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis) went to high school and has now returned to lick her wounds after a bad divorce. Maggie, we are given to understand, isn't the most socially outgoing sort, so when bubbly party girl Haley (McKaley Miller) decides to become her new best friend, Maggie entirely commits herself to Haley's lifestyle. Given the lack of life in town, this mostly means getting drunk and stoned with Haley's other best friends Chaz (Gianni Paolo), Darrell (Dante Brown), and most importantly, Andy (Corey Fogelmanis), whom the film insistently presents as cute, despite his slightly clammy look, and his tendency to gaze with the rapt intensity of a career stalker. At any rate, alcohol is hard to come by, until a middle-aged woman named Sue Ann, taking a decidedly inappropriate interest in Andy, agrees not just to buy liquor for the kids, but to provide her basement as a safe haven for them to drink and smoke and whatever to their hearts' content. When Sue Ann shifts, almost immediately, from "cool adult who buys booze" to "creepy adult who has nothing resembling an acceptable idea of the boundaries that separate minors from adults", Maggie is the first to start to look for a way out. But Sue Ann, turns out, is a full-on slasher movie nutjob, and she's not looking to have her last, best hope for a good high school experience taken away from her.

I take it on faith that the right filmmaking team can make any story work, but Ma makes me wonder. There are two different movies here, or anyway one movie told from two exactly opposite directions, in two different moral universes. The fundamental storytelling problem is that Sue Ann is too relatable, her suffering too outrageous, and her anger too justified, for her to become Jason Voorhees. Screenwriter Scotty Landes plays the usual trick in that situation, by giving her a terrible secret that pre-dates the main events of the plot and is meant to showcase that she was already rotten and evil and demented before crossing paths with Maggie, but by the time we're shown all of that, we've also been shown all of her slightly heartbreaking flashbacks, and the primacy effect wins out.

Meanwhile, over in Maggie's movie, Sue Ann is just a deranged lunatic. It's structured that way from head to toe, all of the increasing creep of reveals that something is wrong with the older woman are playing off of the most basic thriller mechanics, and the third act goes all-in on horror clichés of stalking around a house with a blood-streaked blade. And - this is maybe the most important bit of all - Ma decisively positions Maggie as the protagonist. We meet her first, we're yoked to her level of knowledge and perspective when we're not sitting right inside Sue Ann's head, and she's the one who changes the most over the course of the film. And she's just a straight-up slasher movie Final Girl, so for her to be the narrative anchor of the movie means that there is absolutely no work for all of that tender, disturbing character work that Spencer is up to.

Setting the question of whether this could work under any circumstances (I imagine it could, but it would need to be in the hands of a truly masterful horror director, not a middlebrow hack like Tate Taylor whose closest brush with genre till now has been the miserable 2016 thriller The Girl on the Train), the smaller-scale issue with Ma is that the story of Maggie and her friends just isn't very good. Silvers is a perfectly adequate, unmemorable actor, which perhaps works in the film's favor if we imagine that Maggie is meant to be something of a tabula rasa, a kind of Everyteen for the view to use as a means to get into the thriller (though it's kind of hard to imagine that a movie whose big selling point is "Watch! As Octavia Spencer plays a psychopath is hunting for a teen audience). But if we actually want to care about the travails of our protagonist, she needs a bit more specificity than Silvers gives her, and definitely more than the screenplay's pointedly half-formed gestures of personality and backstory. The kids in Ma are, ultimately just the usual batch of anonymous victims you can find in any psycho killer movie, and the rest of the movie is too smooth and bland to have the right kind of exploitation movie bite to actually be a psycho killer movie worth watching.

What is worth it, though, is the chance to see Spencer completely escape the prestige movie shackles that have constrained her ever since she hit the big time with The Help, tearing into the meaty role of a tormented, traumatised, merciless puppet master without holding anything back. Ma doesn't earn remotely Spencer's performance (nor does it earn Juliette Lewis's delightfully loose, warm performance as a concerned mom trying hard to be hip, or Allison Janney's faultless sardonic line deliveries in a quasi-cameo role that she probably filmed in a single day - but Spencer is the obvious draw). She's great at marrying the feeling and kitschiness of the role, the exact thing that the rest of Ma can't figure out, and her early interactions with the teens is suffused with a melancholic bemusement that's miles beyond anything the script comes up with to motivate her character. Spencer's Sue Ann deserves a better vehicle around her; but at least we've gotten her at all, even if all the good she's able to do is rouse this generic junk food horror to the level of "something to watch while you're folding laundry".

*Given that the last time that Spencer and director Tate Taylor collaborated on a movie that directly grappled with racism in America, it was 2011's dreary, ineffective The Help, this is probably for the best.