You Are Not My Mother (2021)
When her missing mother reappears, teenaged Char begins to suspect she is an otherworldly imposter. Written and directed by Irish filmmaker Kate Dolan, You Are Not My Mother taps into some truly primal fears – parental abandonment, being harmed by those meant to protect us, and being ostracised from our community. The carefully nuanced screenplay ensures an enthralling ambiguity throughout. Char’s mother has a history of depression and mental health issues – are the changes she exhibits due to her ill health? Her medication? Or something more unnatural? Dolan’s writing and direction are bolstered by incredibly strong, compelling performances, particularly from Hazel Doupe as Char and Carolyn Bracken as her mother Angela. Char is a subdued, quiet girl with no friends. Doupe’s ability to convey so much internalised emotion, worry and pain is especially captivating. Bracken also delivers a memorably striking performance, the physical aspects of which create a sense of unease and eventual terror as she contorts herself and creeps about the house at night in increasingly unnatural ways. The powerful and moving performances ground the fantastical aspects of the story in a very relatable, mundane reality, which adds to the film’s uncanny power.
Throughout is a bewitching juxtaposition of the ancient and the occult with the contemporary (the council estate setting, edged by woodland) which speaks of the encroachment of the primitive, ancient and arcane upon modern, civilised society. Old Irish traditions about Samhein and belief about the thinning of the veil between this world and the Other World (inhabited by the dead, and malevolent faerie changelings) are still whispered about in certain parts of the island and are subtly exploited by Dolan to chilling effect. Char’s bully-turned-confidante Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) and Granny Rita (Ingrid Craigie) both reveal a strong belief in the supernatural: Rita insists Angela is a faerie changeling who wants to abduct Char, while Suzanne has a chilling experience which she claims was her mother’s ghost trying to warn her of impending danger. The extremely disturbing opening scene sets the tone and atmosphere for the film, and Dolan has an eye for haunting, creepy imagery – the shrouded figure upon the bed, an embrace between two characters that is as horrifying as it is weirdly tragic, a murmuration of birds over the estate like a portent of doom. The deeply unsettling score by Die Hexen (composer, visual artist, and filmmaker Dianne Lucille Campbell) becomes downright alarming in places and helps to seep proceedings in an unshakable sense of dread and quiet menace.
Dolan’s screenplay is attuned to the plight of the characters, and as such they feel very real. Char not only has to contend with being a lonely teenager, a troubled family life, and secrets kept from her by her Granny Rita, but eventually the unimaginable. There is a sense of shared trauma between the three generations of women, a sense of shared shame, secrets, and stigma because of the family history – they are social pariahs as many people on the estate are aware of their troubled past. Dolan taps into the horror of what a young adult experiences watching their parent undergo a transformation of sorts, and struggle with severe health issues.
You Are Not My Mother is a powerful, moving and terrifying domestic horror about an ordinary family trying their best to deal with a terrifying situation. Dolan never shies from tackling difficult social issues (familial abuse, mental illness) through the lens of horror cinema, with a perfectly crafted ambiguity that ensures a haunting quality not easily shaken off even after the lights come back on.