Emmett’s (Kyle Gallner) mother has passed away. He and fiancé Anya (Holland Roden) claim her ashes and go over to her home, the home that she left to Emmett, to clean it up and possibly sell it. Emmett doesn’t seem to be mourning his mother’s loss, maybe because he still has so much anger about her abandoning him at a young age.
In an effort to loosen him up, Anya suggests they do mushrooms, after which things take a turn as Anya starts behaving like his mother. Her mannerisms change, so does her voice and appearance, even her handwriting. Anya is always dressed down, face barely made up, generally untidy, and now she’s the opposite. Her face is expertly made up as she takes a drive to buy a rotisserie chicken, and she’s making bacon and eggs for Emmett when Anya barely cooks. Emmett, as expected, is freaking out. He can’t figure out if this is a game Anya’s conjured to psychoanalyse him, or if she’s really been possessed by the ghost of his mother.
The movie is mostly a two-hander, which is perfectly fine as Gallner and Roden are more than up to the task. They are fantastic together, commanding the screen with their effortless chemistry and acting talent. Roden is able to transform her physicality and demeanour when she slips into playing Emmett’s mother. Later on in the film, we hear his mother’s voice while Emmett’s watching some old videos of them together, and it’s uncanny how alike they sound. Gallner may be one of the more underrated actors working today. He’s incredible in everything he does, and it’s mesmerising stuff to see him take on this role. He fleshes out Emmett’s complicated feelings regarding the loss of his mother, as well as his navigation through this strange terrain of his fiancé masquerading as his mother.
Mother, May I? has an amazing sense of atmosphere. The film is gorgeously well-lit, with the warm, yellow light of candles at night, and natural light in the day. The cross fades between the still landscape and the inhabitants of the house convey a sense of dislocation and loneliness. Both Emmett and Anya are so far removed from everyone, but they are also distant from each other. Anya often makes Emmett play a role reversal game – one of the tricks Anya’s picked up from her psychoanalyst mother – which allows each person to dive into the perspective of the other and speak truths the other is not comfortable revealing. These armchair sessions always end badly, because Emmett refuses to communicate his issues, while Anya is trying to badger him into submission. The tension also escalates with each chair reversal set piece, and it’s fascinating to watch each session unfold.
According to Freud, boys at a young age look at their mother as a primary focus of desire. Typically, they move past this phase and go on to have healthy romantic relationships. But if they do not manage to move past this phase, the parental fixation remains, which seems to be the case for Emmett, who’s never been able to let go off his mother despite his anger about her abandonment of him. As Emmett and Anya play out their relationship dynamic, it does feel that he’s chosen her because she mothers him, while Anya gets to feel a sense of control in their relationship by playing that role.
While things meander a bit after the climax, and the film at its conclusion isn’t as engaging as its earlier two-thirds, Mother, May I? is a riveting watch, and has quite a bit to say about the complex relationships we have with our mothers.