There is a lot of unpack and analyze in writer-director Laurence Vannicelli‘s “Mother, May I?,” a film that’s riddled with complexities and heavy themes. It’s a dark psychological drama mixed with a few supernatural elements, and while Vannicelli doesn’t quite succeed in tying it all together, he makes a gutsy effort to express how the ghosts of our past impact our present and future selves.
Emmett (Kyle Gallner) has been estranged from his mother since she abandoned him as a child. He gets the surprise news upon her death that she left him her home in her will, so he and his fiancée Anya (Holland Roden) travel to the family farmhouse in order to get it cleaned out and ready to sell. When they get there, things don’t go smoothly. It’s a difficult situation for everyone, especially when Anya begins acting like Emmett’s dead mother, adopting her mannerisms and wearing her clothing. This has the man questioning if his mom has actually taken over his partner’s body.
Anya’s possible possession acts as an effective metaphor of how childhood trauma can manifest in adulthood. Both she and Emmett have a cycle of abuse, neglect, and abandonment in their respective childhoods. His mother left him, while hers was a cold, aloof intellectual that didn’t provide the nurturing love and support she craved. The pain and trauma both experienced as kids have made the couple afraid to have their own, and their “mommy issues” run deep. Their anxiety is off the charts.
Vannicelli’s story is thoughtful and his direction compelling, with a good eye for visuals and creepy imagery. The pacing is surprisingly quick, and the narrative doesn’t feel slow. Parts of the film feel a bit manipulative, and the open-ended questions raised may frustrate some. This isn’t a traditional ghost story, but the thriller elements are mostly done well, especially a tense scene on a boat.
Roden and Gallner give strong performances, and it’s easy to believe they are a real couple. Since Anya’s mother is a psychotherapist, it’s not hard to imagine she would take role-playing exercises too far and pretend to be possessed simply as a means to get a rise out of Emmett. The most beautiful expression of the pain they’re feeling is when Anya admits that she needs a child, and Emmett responds that he needs a mother.
By blending genres, “Mother, May I?” tells a trauma-themed story in a thoughtful, interesting, and different way.