Elevated by two powerhouse performances, “Mother May I?” is a powder keg of tension and trauma dressed as a moody supernatural thriller.
A woman dies alone in her secluded cottage home. Her grown son, Emmett (Kyle Gallner), inherits his mother’s estate, despite the fact that she left him at a young age, and he hasn’t spoken to her since.
His aspiring poet fiancée, Anya (Holland Roden), accompanies Emmett to the home to help him prepare the place for sale. Upon arrival, she immediately falls in love with the sprawling estate and picturesque setting, musing about how perfect it would be for a writer’s retreat.
But Emmett is anxious to dump the property as quickly as possible, preferring not to be reminded of the woman who abandoned him as a child.
He’s also got another incentive for wanting to sell. He’s eager to start a family with Anya, even going so far as to use an app on his phone to tell him when she’s fertile. But Anya doesn’t appear nearly as eager for a baby, worried Emmet’s motivations for fatherhood aren’t ideal.
Concerned that he’s repressing significant childhood trauma and closing himself to feeling the depth and breadth of his emotions, she forces him to play a couple’s therapy game, a trick of the trade she learned growing up with her psychotherapist mom.
During the game of chair reversal, they each take turns assuming the perspective of the other while answering questions and attempting to reveal hidden truths.
When Emmet quickly gets frustrated with the game and Anya’s accusations regarding his baby fever, she tries another tactic to get him to open up and break down his walls, encouraging him to take shrooms with her.
That’s when things get much weirder and more intense between the two.
Anya wants to play the chair reversal game again. But this time, something is different. She’s not herself: more biting, assertive, and self-assured.
Emmett assumes it’s just the drugs, but she’s worse rather than better the next day.
Soon, not only is Anya acting differently, but she looks different, too— foregoing her relaxed, earthy style for a far more made-up and stylish look. Her mannerisms have changed, as have her body language, facial expressions, and speech patterns.
Suddenly, she’s doing things she never did before, like dancing, cooking, and smoking cigarettes.
She starts to say things that make Emmett believe she’s pretending to be his mom.
At first, he thinks it’s just another mind game designed to force him to confront his repressed mommy issues. But the more things progress and the more Anya refuses to drop the act, no matter how heated things get, he starts to worry she may not be the one in control.
Is Anya possessed by the spirit of Emmett’s mom, or is she just a master manipulator?
As the impersonation becomes more profound, Emmett lets go of his anger and begins embracing the possibility that his mom has returned to seek closure with the son she abandoned.
He realizes how much he needs that closure and answers about why she left, far more than he imagined or allowed himself to accept. He finally confesses the extent of his trauma and his severe abandonment issues.
Thus, when Anya wakes up one morning, acting like herself again and claiming to have no memory of her strange behavior over the past three days, Emmett feels sadness rather than relief.
In a heated confrontation during another round of chair reversal, deep-seated resentments come to light, and tensions between the couple reach a boiling point.
To complicate matters, a stranger has entered their fray, arriving at the door to check on the house when he sees a car parked out front. His name is Bill (Chris Mulkey), a neighbor from down the street who was friendly with Emmett’s mom.
Bill is friendly and eager to help, but something about him is far from comforting.
In a film that rests squarely on the shoulders of its two main leads, we’re gifted with two performers who are phenomenal and riveting to watch.
Gallner is rapidly becoming a genre staple, having recently appeared in 2022 horror hits Scream and Smile (though he really shined in 2020’s dramatic comedy Dinner in America).
Roden will also be a familiar face to many, appearing in the popular series Teen Wolf and Lost, as well as Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman.
Though Gallner is as impressive as always, Roden gives a tour-de-force performance, believably embodying two very different characters and mining the depths of emotional scars, neuroses, and deep-rooted insecurities.
She so convincingly commands the screen, effortlessly shifting between a dominant and submissive personality, that it becomes impossible to know whether she’s a victim or a perpetrator.
Aided by Roden’s acting masterclass, writer-direct Laurence Vannicelli is able to masterfully dangle the audience on the hook, ensuring we’re never quite sure whether psychological warfare or the supernatural is really to blame for the ensuing events.
Ultimately, it may not really matter whether the possession is real or not.
Whether literal or metaphorical, the past remains a looming specter of haunting influence in the lives of these broken characters.
And therein lies the film’s real raison d’etre.
While it plays very much like a supernatural chiller, full of moody tension and slow-burning dread, the real horror consists of the fraught relationship between two damaged people and the inescapable way the past sinks its claws in and refuses to let go — despite extensive therapy and all the carefully constructed coping mechanisms.
Gorgeously shot with striking transitions and artfully constructed scenes, Mother May I? is a film more focused on characters than plot, centered around two wildly talented actors who give it everything they’ve got.
Like a venomous snake ready to strike, it slowly slinks and coils with mind-twisting menace until it reaches its devastating climax.
This is a film that deals with issues of fractured parent-child relationships, trauma responses, imposter syndrome, fear of mediocrity, self-loathing, and the desperate attempt to fill a gaping void by any means necessary.
It’s about the pain and futility of trying to outrun the past.
In the end, we’re all haunted. And it’s hard to imagine anything more frightening than that.