Writer/director Laurence Vannicelli’s psychological thriller “Mother, May I?” is a cautionary tale regarding denial of self. [Brooklyn Horror Film Festival]

There’s an old adage that women seek out men like their fathers and men seek those like their mothers. To me, this reeks of a presumption that individuals are destined to be stuck in cycles, constantly perpetuating the same broken ideals of the patriarchy: woman as care-giver, man as protector of the realm. This may be the first place audiences are going to go when they learn of writer/director Laurence Vannicelli’s latest project, Mother, May I?, which is having its world premiere at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2022. Primarily a two-hander between Kyle Gallner (Smile) and Holland Roden (Escape Room: Tournament of Champions) as an engaged couple coming to clean out the home of a recently deceased mother’s home, Vannicelli’s film uses the tropes and tricks of a supernatural chiller in order to ask bigger questions regarding communication, mental health, and satisfying personal needs. Though not all the ideas land as intended, the execution and performances are enough to warrant the experience.

Emmett (Gallner) has not seen or been in touch with his mother, Tracy (Robin Winn Moore), for decades, so he doesn’t know how to feel when he finds himself the recipient of her home in her will. Joined by his fiancée Anya (Roden), the two come to Tracy’s isolated farm to clean it up in hopes of selling it quickly so that they can return home and get back to their lives, including trying to start a family. But after a slightly uncomfortable first day, Emmett wakes to discover Anya is behaving unlike herself, even going so far as to dress, move, and speak like his dead mother. Is this the result of a mushroom trip gone bad or is there something in the house trying to speak to Emmett through Anya?

Mother, May I? is an intriguing work. Through smartly structured interactions, the audience is teased information about who this couple is and their past via actual interactions rather than through exposition dumps. A lesser script would use the estrangement of Emmett and Tracy as the vehicle for Anya’s lack of knowledge regarding Emmett’s past. Instead, it’s quickly established that Emmett has discussed things with her and that the two are in a devoted relationship. What also becomes known is that Emmett is/was in therapy. Being something that Anya takes seriously, Emmett also takes it seriously, but moreso to placate her than ease his pain. This means that before Anya starts behaving strangely, the audience is shown the couple engaging in a communication tool they call chair reversal in which, for roughly a minute, the pair asks questions of the other but as their opposite. This is not the only tool presented through the film and its use implies that Vannicelli is offering a baseline that the audience can use to measure what happens in the story against in order to know if what we’re seeing is truth or manipulation-as-therapy. Except there are so many other moments throughout the film, carefully staged and artfully constructed, that the truth may very well be irrelevant as long as the specter of the past isn’t fully acknowledged.

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L-R: Holland Roden as Anya and Kyle Gallner as Emmett in Laurence Vannicelli’s MOTHER, MAY I?.

It’s here that Mother finds its footing. That Anya does behave strangely, that there seems to be both supernatural and rational explanations for everything, places the audience without secure footing. Given what we learn about the couple, they seem to be high-functioning individuals who’ve experienced their fair share of trauma, making the situation they find themselves in (isolated location, multiple triggers for both, sharing the former living quarters of a recently deceased individual) ripe for reality bending. Technically, Vannicelli uses aspects like long single takes and extensive pans to generate a sense that what we’re seeing is happening in real-time, offering the suggestion of reality amid the clear fiction. It also allows the tension to hang in the air in ways that edits would short cut, so that when the pair fight and the camera moves from one to the other, the audience can feel the physical and emotional distance between them. Then there’re the tricks and tropes of psychological thrillers, like someone being where they cannot be (via hypnagogia) or something occurring before a character abruptly wakes, creating the sense that what we may have seen was not real at all. If that wasn’t real, then what is? Where was the line drawn so we knew the difference? Overlapping the technical with the tricks of a psychological thriller through the lens of someone with experience with therapy, there’s a volatile mix on display that can explode at any point.

Of all the things that work with the film, the fact that so much of it is hard to pin-point in terms of reality and character intent makes it difficult for the audience to identify exactly the intention of the ending as it relates to the characters. There’s one thing that’s plain and unquestionable and, to avoid spoilers it won’t be mentioned, but there’s what it means that creates a bit of confusion. Because of this, some audiences may struggle to understand Vannicelli’s point of the story. Personally, my read on the film is that avoidance doesn’t lead to a healthy life in which our goals can be met but manifests the same cycle of trauma that you want to escape. On a personal note, I’ve been back in therapy since the fall of 2021, it’s something I’ve discussed where relevant in my reviews, so seeing techniques that I’m aware of in use speaks to Vannicelli’s attention to detail and the level of accuracy of the narrative. That said, and this isn’t a dig on Vannicelli, the characters themselves are so focused on being who they think they should be that what comes to pass almost feels inevitable, even without the possible supernatural aspect. Credit to Gallner and Roden as their performances are the bedrock upon which the whole narrative rests. Roden, especially, offers a performance where we, the audience, don’t know if she’s telling the truth at any given moment.

As mentioned in the introduction of this review, the old adage of men marrying their mothers and women their fathers is, by and large, a byproduct of the patriarchy. The notion is riddled with subtext of an old world where the choices of the generations before us define who we are and who attracts us/we are attracted to. To leave Mother, May I? with such an interpretation would be a superficial read on the film which isn’t about that at all, but about what happens when we reject the past without first starring it down. In a scene with neighbor Bill (Chris Mulkey), Emmett mentions that Anya thinks he’s maladaptive coping behaviors, scoffing as he says it. Viewed through that notion, the whole film is a cautionary tale about what happens when we deny parts of ourselves that inhibit who we want to become.

Screening during the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 2022.

For more information, head to the official Mother, May I? BHFF film webpage.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

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