Arguably more so than any other form of cinema, horror tends to regularly experience rapid-fire bursts that sees oddly specific subgenres become increasingly popular and prevalent in a relatively short space of time. Thanks to titles including Grabbers, The Hallow, A Dark Song, and The Hole in the Ground, supernatural stories rooted in Irish folklore have been added to the list in recent years, with Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother the latest impressive example.
The writer and director’s feature-length debut originally premiered to widespread acclaim at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and is currently available on Netflix in some international markets, but the haunting exploration of how mythology and generational trauma can often unexpectedly go hand-in-hand will be hoping to find a brand new audience when it comes to Blu-ray, DVD, and on-demand on June 21. If you’re a fan of slow-burning atmosphere, lurching dread, and scary tales that have important things to say, then make sure you don’t sleep on this one.
However, don’t go in expecting a balls-to-the-wall frightener that throws blood, guts, gore, and jump scares onto the screen with a ferocious regularity, because it isn’t that kind of movie. Instead, Dolan’s thought-provoking and completely open to interpretation working-class chamber piece opts for a slower pace, one that allows viewers to fully invest in the characters, their dynamics, and fractured relationships, before steeping the entire thing in local legends of changelings, faeries, and Samhain.
It helps that the three central performances are all phenomenal, with each generation of the central family required to bring an entirely different perspective to the overarching themes of You Are Not My Mother, but still managing to present them as completely in sync with the tone of the film as a whole.
Hazel Doupe’s Char is our protagonist, a withdrawn teenager going through the usual trials and tribulations of a high school existence that finds her shunned and bullied by her peers, but it’s her home life that causes the most concern. Her mother Angela, as played by Carolyn Bracken, is suffering from serious mental heath issues that largely keep her indoors and confined to her bedroom. However, when she suddenly disappears one day and then returns home with no explanation as to where she’s been, Ingrid Craigie’s superstitious matriarch Rita instantly assumes the worst. As it turns out, she’s right on the money.
It might be Doupe who anchors You Are Not My Mother with a grounded, relatable turn that’s as understated as it is effective, but Bracken is convincingly unsettling in what could broadly be described as the “showiest” part. As the title implies, both we the audience and Char know that Angela 2.0 most definitely is not her mother, but Bracken’s shift into demonic territory is a gradual playing of the hand, one that refreshingly doesn’t rely on histrionics or overt signposting to get the point across.
The very first scene neatly helps to establish the broad strokes of the premise and the central conceit, but Dolan never offers up any answers that could be deemed as wholly definitive until the final act. As the story progresses, you’ll find yourself wondering how much of Rita’s talk of another world just beyond our own is real, whether or not Char actually believes much of it, and why Angela has suddenly been replaced by a malevolent doppelganger with its sights set on literally and figuratively tearing the formerly tight-knit clan apart.
You Are Not My Mother might luxuriate in narrative ambiguity, but Angela’s contorted, bone-snapping, and ultimately grotesque assimilation by something else makes it perfectly clear that Dolan isn’t beating around the bush when it comes to the otherworldly elements. It firmly roots the film in a heightened reality that exists almost parallel to our own, full of everyday troubles we can all relate to and sympathize with, but the presence of something sinister lurking around every corner adds another layer of urgency and intensity to the proceedings that buries itself just under the skin.
The marriage between family drama and folk horror is hardly a brand new or original perspective, but it comes across very clearly and supremely confidently that Dolan has invested a great deal of herself into every aspect of You Are Not My Mother, whether it’s the interpersonal dynamics between friends, families, and locals, the introversion of Char’s true feelings that cause plenty of blowback among her nearest and dearest, or the deep-rooted belief in local lore that has the elders pointing the finger of blame at something unnatural long before the younger generation even begin to entertain the possibility.
A tightly-wound screenplay, unnerving sound design, effective shot composition, deliberately gloomy cinematography, and a first-time feature filmmaker admirably wringing everything possible out of a minuscule budget that was capped at $400,000 and shot during a pandemic-induced lockdown makes You Are Not My Mother a fantastic calling card.
Dolan can officially be deemed as one of horror’s most intriguing and singular new talents, thanks to a debut that’s definitely worth seeking out for horror aficionados who prefer having something to think about and chew on once the lights come up, as opposed to the hollow adrenaline rush of splashy set pieces that don’t have anything to say, and find themselves forgotten in an instant.