There must be a lot of pressure to squish your movie into a particular pigeonhole. Film-watchers make split-second decisions on what to watch, so how the movie presents itself in that moment is imperative. It must mean compromises, as films get stuffed into boxes that don’t quite suit them.
Mother, May I? Is, without doubt, being branded as a horror movie. We can completely understand why. When it comes to low-budget movie-watching, horror movies get a bit of a pass. You can still get your kicks from a lo-fi horror. But the problem is that Mother, May I? isn’t much of a horror movie. And the gap between how it’s promoted and what it actually is will likely annoy some movie goers.
Mother, May I?, if we were to pick a genre for it, would be a psychological, body-swap thriller. Yeah, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Now we know why it went “sod it” and plumped for ‘horror’. There’s only one sequence in the entire movie that gave us the willies, and even then we’re being kind.
It certainly starts like a horror film. Emmett (Kyle Gallner, slowly becoming a Scream King thanks to Smile and Scream), has inherited the idyllic country house of his mother. He’s a tad bemused, because his mum effectively disowned him when he was a child, and he hasn’t talked to her since. So he’s here, cleaning up the remote building for a quick sale.
Along for the ride is Anya (Holland Roden, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions). She’s Emmett’s partner, and it’s quickly clear that she plays the role of his therapist. He’s clearly facing some demons by returning to the home of his birth, and she is keeping a keen eye on him. There are some fun, quirky bits where Anya drags Emmett over to the kitchen table for some new-age psychotherapy, where they roleplay as each other (something that will become poignant as the film goes on).
Emmett has abandonment issues that he’s very honest about repressing. He says that he couldn’t care less about the death of his mother, but there’s no chance that’s the truth. But as the film develops, it’s clear that Anya has her share of dissociations too. She desperately wants a child with Emmett, has acute imposter syndrome about her poetry, and has a rather large bag of weed with her.
It’s a situation that’s already ripe for some psycho-drama. You could have left it at that. But there’s no chance of that, as Mother, May I? tosses in the mother’s ghost. Her presence is felt initially in the steaming of windows, then the whispers in the dark, and finally she decides to embark on a spot of possession.
Now, we don’t want to reveal all that much, but it’s not spoiling too much to say that the possessions aren’t played for thrills. This is not the Exorcist or even Get Out. Instead, we get something that is equidistant between them and comedies like Big or Freaky Friday. Yeah, we were surprised too. Because Emmett’s mother decides to just brazenly move back in, playing Happy Families like she’d never been gone. Which means actors taking turns to wear her clothes and speak in an old woman’s voice.
So, we move through the many stages of ‘what the hell?’. Emmett and Anya begin at ‘denial’, failing to believe that this is happening at all. Then there’s ‘acceptance’, ‘anger’ and a fair old splash of ‘denial’ again. The young couple were already fraying at the edges, and the mother’s reappearance yanks at those edges.
You have to remember that we were expecting a horror movie, so this was all a bit of a surprise to us. That misunderstanding was damaging: the ghostly whispers in the dark felt like lame attempts to scare us. It was a trick it just kept attempting, and we were like unimpressed punters in a broken rollercoaster. When was it going to get going? But the truth is that Mother, May I? isn’t interested in any of that.
The body-swapping was a hurdle to overcome too. It’s hard not to find the sudden role-playing faintly comedic, as characters pick up a cardigan and suddenly become an older lady. The tone is deathly serious, but it doesn’t quite tally with the events of the movie. We let out a little burble of a laugh on occasion and immediately felt guilty.
There isn’t just one hurdle. Immediately after that hurdle is a second, and its problem is believability. Because the two characters absolutely refuse to believe that something supernatural is going on, and that refusal got massively frustrating. We get it: ghosts aren’t real, and the tone is skewing towards realism. But when three-quarters of the movie is spent disbelieving something that is clearly happening, then the time can feel wasted. It doesn’t help that if they were correct and the events were fabricated, then the couple should have gone to counsellors within the first act. Why they don’t is anyone’s guess.
Which is all a shame as there is still some promise in Mother, May I? The direction is a tier or two above your usual budget horror fodder, and the same goes for the acting (Kyle Gallner in particular is appropriately disturbed and impatient). The psycho-babble and cod-therapy sessions are also brilliant in their cringiness. If anyone tries to get us to do the roleplaying scenarios in Mother, May I?, we’re going to tell them where to get off.
The best way to enjoy Mother, May I? is to arrive with the correct assumptions. This is not a horror movie. It doesn’t even tickle the hairs on the back of the neck. Instead, it worms its way into a dysfunctional relationship and watches what happens when it’s put under the most extreme of stress. If you can accept it as a psychological, subtle thriller then there’s the chance you will get something out of it. Just try not to laugh when the old woman impressions come out.