E.L. King says Laurence Vannicelli's psychological horror Mother, May I? is thoughtfully crafted with distinct sensitivity, and embraces the tender, gritty, and painful emotions of a lost childhood.
Writer and director Laurence Vannicelli conjures a Mommy Dearest (1981) equivalence in his disturbing, reality-altering, and supernatural psychological horror, Mother, May I? The film stars Kyle Gallner and Holland Roden as a young dysfunctional couple existing under the weight of their equally tormenting childhood trauma and Chris Mulkey. Vannicelli explores the acutely painful void created by neglect and abandonment while depicting the lifelong psychological consequences of the emotional trauma they present, namely forming and maintaining healthy relationships.
Emmett (Gallner) and his fiance Anya's (Roden) relationship is anything but the picture of health. They both long to supersede the faults and trauma caused by their mothers by having a child of their own—audiences will undoubtedly agree that this is an ill-advised path forward. The couple plays an unsettling psychological game to express the emotions and sentiments they bottle up and subconsciously hide to avoid their pain. While Anya refers to the game as Chair Reversal, in the field of psychology, it's known as Gestalt therapy's Empty Chair Technique. It's described as an approach designed to allow an individual—in this instance, it's often Emmett—to work through interpersonal or internal conflict, helping a person to see a situation from a different perspective and gain insight into their feelings and behaviors.
Grappling with his trauma and feelings of abandonment following his mother, Tracy's death, Emmett is forced to confront his fear when their therapy games are pushed too far. Anya inexplicably takes on the persona of his deceased mother, dressing like her, speaking in a subtly altered voice, and recounting long-buried stories from Emmett's life with her as a boy. Emmett begins to unravel as the bizarre nightmare unfolds, and with several subdued supernatural experiences afflicting the couple within the house left to Emmett by his mother, it's difficult to discern what's real. Is Anya truly possessed, or is it merely a cruel and sadistic game?
"My name is Emmett and I need a mother. My name is Anya and I need a child."
Roden thrills, frightens, and captivates us in her dual roles as Anya and Tracy, perfectly portraying a lost and tormented woman whose mother's neglect and dismissal have left her with trauma that bonds her to Emmett. Each persona she portrays has distinctly different characteristics depicted through Roden's command of her mannerisms and voice. Anya is disheveled and hates cigarettes, while Tracy is graceful, poised, and an elegant dancer who chain smokes. Roden is masterful and convincing, leaving us unsure of what to believe.
The atmosphere shifts from the first act to the second act, from innocent curiosity to dark and foreboding, with Marc Riordan's haunting score and the addition of classical music soliciting memories of Tracy as she dances. Coupled with Craig Harmer's delicate and beautiful cinematography and brilliantly detailed production design by Daniel Prosky, we feel lost in time somehow, which further distorts our perception of what is real. For instance, Tracy is draped in bold colors, elaborate patterns, and a signature red lip that evokes an air of the early to late 1970s, while Anya wears muted tones and no makeup, which somehow transports us back to the present.
Vannicelli's narrative is thoughtfully crafted with distinct sensitivity. He doesn't cheapen the effects of trauma with shocking frights and sinister ambiance but embraces the tender, gritty, and painful emotions tangled up inside someone struggling to reconcile their lost childhood. Emmett's grief over his feelings of abandonment deeply resonated with my personal experiences that led me to blackout a significant portion of my childhood, causing me to feel immersed and invested in both his and Anya's journeys. The film's closing scene depicts a couple who, while still flawed and dysfunctional, have confronted their trauma and determined their needs, albeit with a terrifying and bewildering resolution.
Mother May I? world premiered at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on October 19, 2022.