Producers: Daisy Long, Dane Eckerle, Daniel Brandt, Holland Rode, Cole Eckerle and Bogdan Apetri   Director: Laurence Vannicelli   Screenplay: Laurence Vannicelli   Cast: Holland Roden, Kyle Gallner, Chris Mulkey, Robin Winn Moore, Michael Giannone, Daphne Gaines and Fox Henson   Distributor: Dark Sky Films

Grade: C

You could call “Mother, May I?” a psychological thriller, but since there are so few thrills in it, psychodrama would be a better category.  And a very odd one at that—talky, ambiguous and ultimately not very satisfying, despite the effort of its two committed leads.

They’re Holland Roden and Kyle Gallner, who play Anya and Emmett, a young couple who travel from New York City to the rural house left him by his recently deceased, long estranged mother Tracy (Robin Winn Moore), whose corpse we see collected by the authorities and cremated in what amounts to a prologue.  The ashes are delivered to Emmett, who scatters them in a small lake as he and Anya drive north to what’s now his property.

Emmett harbors intense feelings about Tracy, whom he says abandoned him in infancy.  (We’re not informed about how he was raised after the separation.)  His unresolved childhood trauma is upsetting to Anya, a writer whose psychologist mother has suggested that the couple engage in some “chair reversal exercises” to help alleviate it, while also dealing with some of Anya’s issues.  So a good deal of the film involves their facing one another across a table, assuming the other’s identity and asking questions that must be answered as a timer counts down.  The questions are pointed and often reveal disagreements between the two—about having a child, most importantly—along with unpleasant family memories.  The sessions often end acrimoniously as Emmett fails to open up.

The two are not, moreover, of one mind about what to do with the inheritance.  Emmett wants to sell it quickly, and invites a real estate agent (Daphne Gaines) over to discuss it.  Anya, on the other hand, is ambivalent.  She also starts going through Tracy’s papers and mementos—including video tapes of Emmett as a child, which conflict with his own account of his abandonment—to get insight into the true relationship between mother and son.

One night the couple decide to indulge in drugs—magic mushrooms, to be precise—and something strange results.  The next morning Emmett is shocked to find that Anya has changed (after a spider has crawled into her ear during the night); she’s taken on the manners and attitudes of Tracy.  She starts to dress as the dead woman and use her cosmetics.  She dances flamboyantly to Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” and smokes cigarettes, as Tracy did.  Initially Emmett thinks it’s just some psychological game, but as the days roll on the imposture—or is it possession?—takes hold to greater and greater degree.  He’s shocked and appalled when Anya, who unlike Tracy never learned to swim, takes a dip in the farm’s pond.

The effect on him is severe, and even after Anya returns—apparently—to her old self and they resume their chair reversal exercises, he can’t shake thinking that she might still be Tracy.  It’s an obsession he will have to test, with shattering realizations for them both that might just also constitute a breakthrough.

The process is occasionally helped along by appearances from Bill (Chris Mulkey) the old fellow who lives next door, knew Tracy well, and doles out important information about Emmett’s childhood while offering suggestions to Anya about what he needs.

In short, “Mother, May I?” is like watching an extended therapy session tricked out with melodramatic revelations and suggestions of possible supernatural forces at work.  Its excruciatingly slow pace is mitigated to some extent by Gallner’s deeply felt performance as a man constantly in turmoil; Roden is also good, though her turn as Tracy is italicized rather than subtle.  Mulkey brings a sense of calm to his periodic interventions.

Directed languidly by Lawrence Vannicelli, presumably to give Gallner and Roden the opportunity to do their thing, from a script he wrote based on an idea by Daisy Long—one of the producers who’s also credited with the dance choreography—the film is technically adequate.  Craig Harmer’s widescreen cinematography captures the locale without prettifying it, and uses the spacious interior of the house made vaguely sinister by Daniel Prosky’s production design well.  Keola Racela’s very deliberate editing complements the director’s choices, while Marc Riordan’s score is commendably unobtrusive.

Considered as an acting exercise, “Mother, May I?” is interesting.  As a study of psychological recovery, it would probably strike practitioners as decidedly dubious.  As a would-be thriller, it fails pretty miserably.  So ultimately it’s a film of intriguing parts that don’t add up to an effective whole.