Film Review – You Are Not My Mother
You Are Not My Mother
Writer/director Kate Dolan’s feature length debut, You Are Not My Mother (2021) taps into the fear of many young people: That our parents are not who we thought they were. Parents are meant to be our guardians, protectors, and role models – they are the ones we are supposed to turn to when we need help or guidance. What happens when they are not only someone we don’t know, but even a threat? How does one manage themselves when the very people they rely on are dangerous? The potential ramifications can be traumatizing and long lasting. This is a strong and confident first-time outing for Dolan, marked with enough chills and insight to make for a compelling horror experience.
Char (Hazel Doupe) is a young woman living in Dublin, Ireland. With a noticeable birth mark on her cheek, Char becomes a daily target for bullies at school. Her home life includes her grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie) whose physical ailments keep her confined inside, and her mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken). Angela suffers from what appears to be a depression, staying in bed most days. Although Char has plenty of problems in and outside her home, she is assigned to be the responsible person of her family. She must remind her mother to buy groceries to keep everyone fed. Things take a turn when, after dropping Char off at school, her mother suddenly goes missing.
To the family’s relief, Angela shows up not long after, but something is off. Her personality has changed, alternating between happy and joyful to moody and destructive at a moment’s notice. This (obviously) concerns Char immensely. Not only has her mother disappeared with no explanation but has returned seemingly as a completely different person. The home she grew up in suddenly turns to a place full of hidden secrets, all of which start to unravel as the truth of her mom’s disappearance slowly comes to light.
Dolan’s direction is heavy with atmosphere, especially within the house. The set design and art direction make it a creaky, dusty, and cold place. We see paint peeling off the walls and furniture that looks like it was handed down for decades. There is an earthy quality to the interiors, with little twig symbols and decorations scattered throughout. Narayan Van Maele’s cinematography shoots characters down corridors, placed between frames, and partially obstructed by half opened doors and around corners. Occasionally, the editing (John Cutler) will provide a quick flashback to when Char and Rita shared a happy moment, a stark contrast to how things are in the present. This all contributes to Char’s worry that something is wrong, that something dreadful is being kept from her, and that her family is not telling her the whole truth.
One of the major themes is family legacy, and how the sins of the past trickle down to affect the next generation. Char’s family history has generated a reputation around town, with rumors circling them like a dark cloud. Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) was once a bully to Char but turns into a source of companionship. The budding friendship the two share, albeit given a rocky start, is one of the few moments of real empathy Char has. This is in opposition to fellow bully Kelly (Katie White), whose cruelty toward Char borders on sadistic. Kelly is one of the few characters that is a type rather than of a fully formed person. She mistreats Char with little reason other than she is written that way and offers little explanation for her motivation.
The horror doesn’t come through jump scares or cheap tricks, but as a slow, methodical, and building dread. Dolan is very good at creating images that unnerve us. The opening shot – of a baby sitting alone in a stroller in the middle of a dark street – is upsetting in its stillness. Fire is used as a running motif, from the aerosol flame Kelly uses to torment Char to the candles and incense her grandmother uses around the house. Char’s very name calls to mind fire or flames. A lot of these elements work well as establishing factors early on, although the effect fizzles in the later stages. As the narrative progresses towards the climax, with Char’s strained relationship with her mother coinciding with Halloween, things shift into standard horror fare. The makeup and special effects in this section are quite good in an understated way, but the character development and theming never quite pay off in a satisfying way.
Hazel Doupe, Carolyn Bracken, and Ingrid Craigie are convincing as three women all suffering the same terror. The ghosts of their past have come back, and each must face the consequences on their own. In the center is Doupe as Char, stuck with handling the escalating circumstances while also dealing with the everyday pressures of being a teen. Doupe is good here, with her expressive eyes doing much of the heavy lifting. Bracken is equally impressive under a physically demanding role. As Angela, she must counter the warmth and compassion of a mother with an underlying deception that has us was wondering what her true intentions are. A weaker performance may have dipped the character into exaggeration, but Bracken doesn’t allow it to get there. And as Rita, Craigie gives the character mystery and depth while having the least amount of screen times. She makes the most out of her opportunities, causing us to question her allegiances from scene to scene.
You Are Not My Mother may not hit the heights of horror filmmaking, but it is an effective exercise in the genre. Dolan dives into deeper social issues while not skimping out on the terror. In a time where horror movie landscape is stuffed with schlocky, forgettable junk food, here is something that aims to be more than that.