Mommy Issues Get Traumatic in Horror Acting Showcase Mother, May I?

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Mommy Issues Get Traumatic in Horror Acting Showcase Mother, May I?

Laurence Vannicelli’s Mother, May I? is messy with intention. Why? Because repressed trauma is messy. Doing the work to heal ourselves is messy. Crushing grief, allowing acceptance, and mommy issues are all messy. Mother, May I? fits the Trauma Horror™ mold with a backpedal on “horror,” but isn’t as frustratingly predictable as monsters representing inner demons or survival instincts requiring a psychological explanation. Vannicelli weaponizes therapy-speak where other titles become preachy, uses role-playing as an abusive confusion tactic, and provokes a rather alluring mindfuck that doesn’t have nor need all the answers to captivate viewers.

Kyle Gallner and Holland Roden are stupendous sparring partners as an engaged city-slick couple spending time in the country. Emmett (Gallner) inherited his mother’s rustic lakeside estate—a woman he shares so little about. Anya (Roden) accompanies Emmett, intending to ready the property for resale, ingest mind-altering mushrooms, and possibly help Emmett overcome repressed traumas. But when Anya starts acting possessed by the spirit of Emmett’s mother after their fungal psychedelics take effect, Emmett’s reality shatters.

Vannicelli shrouds Mother, May I? in vagueness as a destabilizing tactic. The question of whether Emmett’s deceased mother inhabits Anya’s human form or if Anya’s committing to a days-long psychiatric experiment plays coy. Teases of doors opening could be a breeze or apparition, and there’s no definitive acknowledgment of ghostplay besides a handful of scenes that could easily be daydreams, hallucinations or visual aids for the audience. Cinematographer Craig Harmer frames ghoulish teases just out of sight so as not to confirm nor deny the same, all in a beautiful chamber piece brimming with exquisite shot composition. That might frustrate watchers clamoring for stone-etched explanations, but Vannicelli’s ambivalence toward closure or reason matches the film’s existential duress.

More than anything, Mother, May I? is a performance showcase for Gallner and Roden. The way Roden transforms from an artsy metropolitan poet into a cigarette-sucking ex-dancer isn’t just about wardrobe swaps. Roden’s physicality strikes a sophisticate’s posture that matches self-important language as the actress flexes, playing split personalities with ease. But she doesn’t overshadow a deteriorating Gallner, who nails the dumbstruck expressions of someone watching their entire world splinter apart. Gallner’s portrayal of a fiancé being tortured by a woman cosplaying as his dead mother sells empathy and teetering rage merely through tell-all looks. Gallner and Roden pair like fine red wine and decadent chocolate laced with LSD, finding the jawbreaker-thick emotional core of characters that have walled themselves shut by virtue of inherited mental anguish.

That said, the deliriously whimsical stroll through therapy-gone-haywire does leave some structure to be desired. We can talk about Gallner and Roden’s supremacy for decades, but they’re trapped in a sometimes unforgiving bubble that fancies insect symbolism and doubles down on unknowns. Fearlessness gets the better of Vannicelli at times, which won’t come as a shock to the filmmaker. He’s confident in addressing the hypocrisy behind Anya’s psycho-therapy exercises, learned from her credentialed mother, and Emmett’s disassociation from truths after being gaslit and forced into emotional confrontations—sometimes to a fault. There’s little attempt to ground Mother, May I? as it develops, until a splash of a finale stinger. That’s either a warning or selling point.

Mother, May I? is authentically, vulnerably, fantastically acted, and achingly wounded with a personal appeal. Vannicelli collaborates with his partner, producer/choreographer Daisy Long, on this intense relationship acid-drop that simmers and steams with a constant heat applied, exorcizing demons with genuine expressions. Gallner and Roden put on an independent acting masterclass with the weight of Mother, May I? on their shoulders, unafraid to lay bare their characters’ flaws as the film’s primary source of tension. It’s heartfelt, it’s harrowing, it’s hopeful and it’s happy in its messy conditions—something we should all strive to be.

Director: Laurence Vannicelli
Writer: Laurence Vannicelli
Starring: Holland Roden, Kyle Gallner, Chris Mulkey
Release Date: July 21, 2023

Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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