Kate Dolan’s dark and atmospheric feature debut You Are Not My Mother lives at the fringes of folk horror, but the underlying family melodrama drives a story more interested in generational trauma than a supernatural fairytale. In significant ways a thematic companion piece to Natalie Erika James’s intense Relic, Dolan’s movie carefully locates the sweet spot between creepy Celtic lore and the equally troubling responsibilities that come with being the child of a parent suffering from mental illness. The writer-director trusts the viewer, letting the audience wonder (and decide) how much belongs to the realm of the mystical.
Hazel Doupe plays the ominously-named Char, a bullied teenager living with her grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie) and her depressed, barely-functioning mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) in a shabby North Dublin housing estate. On a day that could be like any other, Angela disappears following a harrowing car ride to drop Char at school. Dolan makes the protagonist’s feelings of stress, guilt and frustration absolutely palpable. When Angela returns, as inexplicably as she vanished, her daughter is ecstatic to find a more responsive, attentive parent. A skeptical and superstitious Rita, however, believes that the prodigal Angela is an imposter, a changeling.
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The secrets and lies that lead Char on a journey of self-discovery pull double-duty as the fuel for this bildungsroman’s engine. Wouldn’t we all rather believe that the faults, flaws and shortcomings of our own parents are the result of some hex or curse and not a genetic predisposition to bipolar disorder or some other affliction? In collaboration with the skillful Doupe, Dolan pinpoints what happens when roles are reversed and a child must become the caregiver to her own mother. In one of the best scenes in You Are Not My Mother, Angela loses herself in a whirling dance to Joe Dolan’s “You’re Such a Good Looking Woman” as Char grows more and more frightened at her mother’s manic, out-of-control behavior.
Dolan sets the action at Halloween, a seemingly obvious ploy to intensify Char’s perceptions of the crisis unfolding in her own home. The decision is a good one, though, as the filmmaker uses Samhain’s affiliation with masks, disguises, bonfires and sacrifices to explore, as heard in a field-trip scene, “a time when the veil between our world and the other world [is] at its thinnest.” This liminality is also embodied by Char’s suspension between what should be a more carefree childhood and the harsh realities of her premature adulthood.
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As a director, Dolan knows just when the eyes of her actors will communicate what words cannot convey. And while the filmmaker draws fine performances from the entire cast, Doupe and Bracken elevate You Are Not My Mother to another level. Both are called upon to express the full range of emotional highs and lows. Both show tenderness and vulnerability. Both can also turn on a dime, setting themselves with a steely resolve as scary as any external force wreaking havoc on the delicate, eggshell equilibrium in their less than happy house.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.