Mother, May I? has lots of themes it wants to explore, ranging from childhood traumas and poor parenting to adult relationship dynamics and the turbulent artistic path. Through the two characters Emmett and Anya that Laurence Vanicelli created, most of these themes are nicely explored, but a question is also raised: is it always a good thing to confront repressed and deeply traumatic emotions? In Mother, May I?, whose title immediately evokes the act of asking for permission and hence is related to authoritative and disciplinary actions, there is an investigation of parental roles and the effect they have on one’s life.
Emmett loses his mother, who abandoned him in his childhood, and now he has to visit her house in order to sell it. His mother was a dancer, a creative person lost in the pursuit of artistic excellence, and Emmett’s fiancé is also related to that same domain. Anya is not a dancer but a poet, and she, too, doesn’t exactly have the healthiest of relationships with her mother. The couple visits the secluded house and, through a bizarre series of events, has to confront their own twisted psychology, and the results are disturbing. Emmett tries to deal with his issues with his mother, and Anya is caught up in the mess when she tries to play the psychoanalyst, just like her own mother. Things get dangerously complex when the ghost of Emmett’s mother possesses Anya’s body. The performance by Holland Roden is pitch-perfect in most parts. Let’s take a look at her character, Anya, in Mother, May I?
Holland Roden as Anya
Anya, Emmett’s fiancé, agrees to go on a trip with him to his mother’s village after he gets the news that she has passed away. Emmett didn’t seem upset, but Anya knew that it wasn’t possible that he wasn’t affected by it. The film doesn’t say how long they have been in a relationship for, but it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that they have been in a relationship for a long time, as Anya can see beneath the façade that Emmett tries to put up, even if Emmett himself can’t. Emmett acts as if his mother was, at best, a distant relative who miraculously left him her huge house in her will. Anya, a professional poet in the making, came to have a great outdoor vacation while also giving emotional support to Emmett. The latter did not seem to be a priority, but when she saw him getting disturbed after finding a few old belongings, Anya put on her psychoanalyst’s hat and played a game of reverse chair, where she pretended to be Emmett and told him what she thought was going on with him. It was her method of dealing with the issues in the relationship.
Anya’s mother was a psychoanalyst, and she might have learned this method as a way of unearthing the buried parts of a person’s subconscious so they could confront what they were repressing. She thought Emmett was deeply disturbed by his mother’s death, and he was repressing this fact because he didn’t want to deal with the fact that she abandoned him in his childhood. She connected this to another even more sensitive topic: that Emmett wanted to have a baby with her just because he didn’t remember his own childhood. This made it look like Emmett didn’t actually love her and wanted to have the baby just as a means of escape. It infuriated Emmett, and he stormed off. Anya was quick to apologize, but things were only getting more complicated.
She sensed something was not right in the house. When they were getting intimate in Emmett’s mother’s bedroom, she sensed something, and they both saw the chair from which her mother fell. Maybe she choked on something or died of cardiac arrest or a stroke, but the blood stains from her head injury are disturbing. Anya, from then on, was his mother’s vessel. The night ended with some psychedelic mushrooms, and when Anya woke up, Emmett’s mother had possessed her. She started to show qualities and attributes that she never had, which confused Emmett to no end. He thought this role-playing was another form of psychoanalytical voodoo to help him deal with his childhood traumas. She made him breakfast, went for a swim, danced like a professional, and even her handwriting changed. She also made some new additions to his mother’s dairy. All of this couldn’t just be the mushrooms’ doing. She was indeed possessed, but Emmett didn’t believe it. This went on for a few days, and when Anya ‘returned,’ she found that there was a completely new version of Emmett—one who wanted his mother back. Apparently, his mother sedated him using a syringe, and while Anya was possessed, she administered the sedative to him. It was a core childhood memory that Emmett had, symbolic of motherly love, and now he wanted it to continue. From Anya’s point of view, it’s completely preposterous, even though she wanted him to process it. But did she ever think that, while doing so, he would become such a different person?
Anya started to do some digging into the matter of his mother abandoning him at such a young age. She found that she hadn’t really abandoned him. The authorities had taken Emmett away after she was deemed unfit to take care of him. She found it out all too late, as she could have made him change his mind about his mother had she known before. Emmett wanted the mother-persona back and was getting needy and irritated. When the tables were turned in ‘reverse chair,’ and Emmett got to reveal what he thought was really going on with her, he pointed out that her poetry career was just a sham. There was another interesting fact: while his mother had possessed Anya, Emmett found a few photographs of an ultrasound, and he thought Anya was pregnant. As Anya was possessed, it was the mother who answered that she could not be pregnant, so there was no need to worry that she smoked or drank. Eerily enough, this is the same answer Anya gives to Emmett when she gets overwhelmed about starting a family with him.
Now, it might be that Anya is telling the truth when she says that she just went to the doctor on a whim and found out that she couldn’t ever become pregnant. But if the parallels about a creative woman avoiding motherhood because it hinders her artistic pursuit or doesn’t seem ‘cool’ enough for their peers are drawn here, maybe Anya and Emmett’s mothers are not too dissimilar. Emmett’s mother said she couldn’t get pregnant. If that was the truth, how did she have Emmett? Maybe Anya too, like Emmett’s mother, just desperately does not want to be a mother, and hence, as a superstitious measure, hopes that she cannot ever become pregnant, but in actuality, she perhaps can. Maybe she had repressed this emotion, and it was deeply buried in her psyche. Otherwise, why would she accompany Emmett on this trip, knowing full well he wants to have a baby and has apps running on his phone to track her ovulation period for a better chance of conception? She would have shown some distress, but she, in turn, blamed Emmett for rushing the process because he didn’t want to deal with his own childhood.
When Emmett pointed out that she revolted at the sight of herself holding a puking baby in her arms and that she was too afraid to deeply care about him and a baby, the fight escalated. Anya could see that he just wanted her to inject him with the sedative, just like his mother used to. He burned her two years’ worth of poetry journals, and she realized that if she wanted to calm him down, she would have to give him what he needed. So, she injected the sedative. In the end, she had to choose whether to stay in the relationship, where she would have to act like his mother, or leave before something bad happened. Emmett hadn’t burned her journal and was seemingly calm, as he had gotten what he needed from Anya.
When he returned the journals, Anya saw him at peace, and she decided to go with him to the pond on a boat. She tried to tell the truth about his mother, saying that she did not really abandon him and that she was relieved for a second that he had burned her journal, as she was afraid of what people would say about her poetry if she published it. This was when Emmett threw her off the boat, as all he could care about was discerning whether the person in front of him was his mother or Anya. When Anya almost drowned, he was convinced, but Anya had enough. She had almost died because of Emmett’s unresolved traumas, and the worst part was that she couldn’t understand him because she was herself possessed when Emmett was going through some intense changes in his personality. She had left, but midway decided to return, as somewhere she cared for Emmett, or maybe she had come back to overdose him on the sedatives as part of her revenge because he tried to drown her.
It seems she has accepted a life of playing the role of his mother for a while until he either recovers from this repulsive attachment to his mother or perishes due to the overdose. She knew she was haunted by his mother’s ghost, who wanted her to be there for her only child, and it seems she complied, but for how long will the relationship last? Nobody can answer. Emmett’s mother wrote in her journal that Emmett was more of a need than a want. The same sentiment was echoed by Anya when she accepted that she didn’t want a baby but needed one to give her life some meaning. And if that is the case, she might just end up having one, as was the case with Emmett’s mother. Her mother couldn’t provide the love and care Emmett needed, but maybe Anya would give that to her baby. Currently, Emmett was acting as her child, fulfilling her ‘need’, but if both of them had to mature, then probably the best way to do that would be to have a baby of their own. She could eventually get pregnant, and perhaps then her life might have a turn towards the better, and the haunting presence of the mother’s spirit would stop guiding her and finally let her go.