MOTHER, MAY I?
starring Kyle Gallner, Holland Roden, Michael Giannone, Chris Mulkey
written and directed by Laurence Vannicelli
starring Rebeca Robles, Andy Gershenzon
written and directed by Christopher Denham
by Walter Chaw Laurence Vannicelli's sophomore hyphenate feature, the two-hander Mother, May I?, feels timid given the richness of its premise and, for the places it's not willing to go, really has only enough going for it for a short--a proof of concept, maybe, a long trailer that hints at dark psychosexual undercurrents. At its current length, it all comes to nothing, a gothic horror about possession and maternal/filial relationships that has all the elements but not the will to put them together. I heard a description once of serious cognitive decline as having a slice of bread in one hand, a toaster in the other, a bottle of jam and a butter knife on the counter, and having no idea how any of it comes together. That's Mother, May I?, which finds Emmett (Kyle Gallner) and his fiance Anya (Holland Roden) tasked with cleaning out his recently-departed mother's expansive manse in the woods, complete with a reedy lake and an overly friendly neighbour, Bill (Chris Mulkey). It's rich, made richer by a mindfuck game Emmett and Anya play in which they set a timer and then force each other to speak truthfully about past traumas before it runs out. Emmett has a few: his mother abandoned him at some point in the past, orphaning him in her affections, and her death has left him nothing but a windfall in the eventual sale of the family reserve. During one of their ersatz therapy sessions, Anya playacts as Emmett's dead mom, and Emmett starts wondering if his mother hasn't actually taken over Anya's body when she doesn't snap out of it after the timer goes off.
The mind boggles, yes? There's a Claire Denis film buried in Mother, May I?--a Freudian lollapalooza in which Emmett figures out a way back into the womb through a vessel willing to indulge his unresolved Oedipal suture. Bill the neighbour in this construction becomes like the father, murdered by his exiled son upon the son's return to the kingdom of his birth. Anya can't swim, by the way, and there's a scene where Emmett tries to teach her in the filthy water of the property's lake. That's a weird way to do it, because cold and gross, right? But as a symbol of the murky unconscious? Perfection. Kind of astounding, then, how Mother, May I? manages to avoid anything that might make the piece cohere. With all the ingredients for something truly resonant and unsettling, it centres itself around the question of whether Anya is possessed or just a manipulative emotional vampire, sucking the life out of her obviously broken lover. Credit Vannicelli for giving his cast a lot of room to stretch out in interminable dialogue sequences, though when it becomes evident that the fertile ground the movie's tilled will never be sown with any fruit-bearing seeds, the entire exercise immediately becomes merely frustrating. It isn't that Mother, May I? fails to do what I wished it would do--it's more that in the absence of it doing much, the mind wanders. For as game as the cast is, the film only ever comes alive when Mulkey appears, his presence a levelling one: calm and friendly and low-level threatening. Yet consider a moment when Anya opens the front door to Bill dragging an unconscious Emmett towards the road. He looks over his shoulder, notices her, and turns on the charm as he drags Emmett back to the house. It's confusing in a pleasurable way, and then...nothing. Anya's response doesn't make sense, and the incident passes without future comment. There's a wonderful film here waiting to be unearthed through a few more drafts.
Christopher Denham's two-hander Old Flame, on the other hand, is a carefully--you could say meticulously--written riff on Linklater's Before series that tackles the question of consent in the "Me Too" era as college sweethearts Rachel (Rebeca Robles) and Cal (Andy Gershenzon) reunite the evening before their ten-year reunion and litigate past grievances. Or, rather, a specific grievance, a particular night in question where Rachel says Calvin raped her, but Calvin remembers it differently. Told in three acts, it does feel like a stage play: the patter is a bit too sharp, the references to Simone de Beauvoir and F. A. Hayek a bit too on the nose. The call-outs to Clytemnestra and Medea are likewise a hat on a hat. But I liked it. I liked the ease with which Robles and Gershenzon work through their pages: Robles has an unforced, ferocious quality about her that belies her kind, open, Laura Prepon-like affect, while Gershenzon is the perfect nebbish, the portrait of a privileged asshole until the moment the monster in him reveals itself. And I like the three different approaches Denham takes to shooting each of the acts, starting with wide shots with the antagonists sparring at a distance from across the room, pushing into medium shots when they're at a little bar two-top, and finally in intimate shaky handheld and disorienting close-ups as the couple takes the climax to a hotel room. It's a small film, but though its goals are modest, it hits all of them with confidence. There's a certain feeling of being taken care of that comes with watching a piece that knows what it's about.