From the outset, writer-director Laurence Vannicelli’s Mother, May I? appears to contain little in the way of originality, a two-character chamber drama that is also yet another entry in the ever-burgeoning subgenre of trauma horror, a few cheap jump scares scattered throughout as classical music ironically wails on the soundtrack. Yet Mother, May I? has a twist up its sleeve, even as Vannicelli ultimately has no clue how to satisfactorily reconcile the metaphorical with the literal. As the film opens, Emmett (Kyle Gallner), a 30-something male with haunted eyes, is retrieving his mother’s ashes from the local funeral home, his complete lack of emotion signaling a troubled past that is made concrete as he discusses the events with his girlfriend, wannabe poet Anya (Holland Roden). The two eventually make their way to his mother’s secluded estate, which was bequeathed to Emmett in her final will. The plan is to clear out the place before ultimately selling it, yet Emmett soon discovers that the past he sought to bury has no plans of letting go, especially on its own home turf. Meanwhile, Anya is one of those “spiritually enlightened” millennial stereotypes obsessed with self-help therapy, forcing Emmett to constantly engage in therapeutic exercises in which the two pretend to be one another in an effort to parse the thoughts and emotions that are too painful to verbalize on their own. The two also ingest a lot of mushrooms, which doesn’t seem like the wisest decision considering the circumstances, but it does help to make them forget all the furniture that keeps overturning on its own, or the television that turns on by itself — naturally showing old home movies — or the constant whispering heard ‘round the clock. Also: So. Much. Whispering.
It’s after one particularly active night that Emmett awakes to discover that Anya is acting rather… strange, almost like she is not herself. She immediately takes up smoking, a habit she has never had before, and even starts swimming, a miraculous achievement since Anya was never taught as a child and has heretofore been deathly afraid of the water. Even her handwriting changes. Is it possible that Anya is possessed by the spirit of Emmett’s mother, desperate for another chance at the motherhood she abandoned so long ago? Or is Anya simply waist-deep in the most fucked-up amateur therapy session of all time? Mother, May I? teases this answer — successfully so — for a large portion of its runtime, as Emmett begins to slowly lose his already tenuous grip on reality. Not only do these actions force him to confront long-buried resentments and outright fallacies he created regarding his mother in an effort to maintain something resembling normalcy, but it also causes him to examine his relationship with Anya, specifically the person she is versus the person she presents, and if she is indeed an individual with whom he wants to share both a life and a child. But make no mistake, Vannicelli isn’t interested in anything resembling subtlety when it comes to his thematic leanings, but that same penchant for didacticism actually works given the situation the two characters find themselves in, along with their constant need to discuss everything even as they reveal nothing. Mother, May I? operates as the very of template of a slow-burn, but one that works surprisingly well in the moment, as it grounds Emmett’s various actions with each new plot reveal, rendering him empathetic to an almost heartbreaking degree.
There does indeed come a point where the other shoe finally drops, and Vannicelli is wise enough to detail the repercussions of such, but he also doesn’t know when it call it quits, as his once complex characters begin to make stupid horror-movie decisions simply because the script dictates it. The care and consistency the director takes so much time establishing throughout much of the film goes right out the window, and while the ending ultimately tracks in a thematic sense, it’s wholly unsatisfying on a dramatic level, and cynical in exceedingly ugly ways. It also does a great disservice to both Gallner and Roden, both of whom deliver performances far better than one might expect given their supporting role-heavy filmography in big screen and small screen genre fare. Gallner builds genuine emotional authenticity across the film’s narrative movements, while Roden makes the most of a character forced to traffic in opposites and extremes, showing off impressive range in the process. Mother, May I? might not stick the landing, but it’s more successful than not in its attempts renovate dilapidated horror real estate, and engenders enough goodwill along the way that viewers shouldn’t regret asking permission to see the show.
DIRECTOR: Laurence Vannicelli; CAST: Holland Roden, Kyler Gallner, Chris Mulkey; DISTRIBUTOR: Dark Sky Films; IN THEATERS & STREAMING: July 21; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 39 min.