Director: Kate Dolan Starring: Hazel Doupe, Carolyn Bracken, Jordanne Jones, Ingrid Craigie, Jade Jones, Paul Reid Running Time: 93 minutes
Char’s North Dublin estate, a troubled place, was hastily built over a river that was bigger than anyone expected, and not so easily buried. Nobody talks about it, nobody wants to know it, but there’s something in the soil around them that can’t be denied. Something sodden and cold. You can’t just pave over it, if you don’t confront it, it will take hold of everything and drag it down into mud, forever. So it goes for the state, the estate and state of mind in You Are Not My Mother, Kate Dolan’s eagerly anticipated feature debut. Like mucky water or frayed clumps of hair swirling down a drain, the tightly tense horror swirls around big ideas and ambition and down into something powerful and personal, a family drama on the island that has so often made women like Char’s mam feel unnatural, uncanny, unwanted.
Dolan gets your goosebumps rising from the start, relying less on big bangs and gore than on unsettling imagery in familiar places, especially to Irish audiences. We’ve all seen hundreds of estates like the one this film opens on – a thankfully less common sight is a baby unattended in a stroller in the middle of the road, and the place that baby’s granny takes her sets the film’s tension high even before the title card. This bab, we learn later, was Char, Hazel Doupe’s quiet school student who slumps the way all teenagers who’ve had to shoulder too much responsibility too soon do.
Skipped ahead a year in school, lonely Char only seems close to her folksy granny Rita and her ma Angela. She has to look after herself a lot it seems, between Rita’s advancing years and Angela’s ‘down days’ – and there have been a lot of those lately. After an argument one morning, Angela tells her daughter she “can’t do this anymore” and disappears. The adults around Char can barely muster being surprised, let alone upset, but as suddenly as she left, her mam is back. Isn’t she? Angela is more erratic than ever. As Halloween approaches, Char is caught between escalating bullies at school and an upsetting and alienating home life, her granny and uncle all the more controlling of her beloved mam, who’s just about there except when she’s all the way not. The horror for Char is less about monsters and mayhem, than it is the constricting air between two spaces in which she doesn’t seem to belong at all.
This feeling – of being a teenager surrounded by dread that make no sense to you and seem to be for no reason – is awfully, expertly recreated in You Are Not My Mother. Through the camera’s hesitation over slightly open bedroom doors, the anxious score by Die Hexen, and the wide eyed, thin-lipped discomfort in Hazel Doupe’s performance, we get this small world firmly seen through Char’s eyes – miserable and terrifying. As Angela, Carolyn Bracken compliments that p.o.v. perfectly. It’s a physical performance, from the defeated body language of a woman struggling with her mental health, to the imprecise tone and posture in her post-disappearance. From weary to wearing herself. A scene of Angela dancing, aggressively and inappropriately while Char pleads with her to stop, brilliantly captures the actresses’ dynamic and the film’s balance between horror and drama. It doesn’t have to be monstrous to be unsafe.
Even in a brief runtime, You Are Not My Mother is a slow burn. Some beats circle around Char’s school life and the film sticks hard to its own pace in escalating Angela’s behaviour. That’s well-punctuated though by the carefully chosen big scares, and with the film’s wise sprinkles of humour – often from Jordanne Jones as the face-turning mean girl Suzanne. Drawing richly from Irish folklore, the need isn’t too strong here to over-explain, the delicate touch with lore welcome and again, homegrown and specific, recalling at its best classic horror like Candyman (as opposed to some over explainly modern horror. Like Candyman). As in The Hole in the Ground from a few years ago, the changeling aspect is a fairly direct delivery mechanism to speak about Irish familial anxieties – our own take on the intricate fears of failing our children, and of being failed ourselves. While both films are similar and small in scale, the Irish setting looms large over the Mother and Children over which it schemes.
The film is to the point in its metaphor for mental illness, and the darker sense of doom might not resolve itself to every viewer’s satisfaction. But with its impressive leads and immersive sound, it more than earns its build up to fireworks – popping off with moments of bright brilliance that suggest great things for the debut director. One soundless Samhain scene, literal fireworks banging in the background, is breathtaking, and it encapsulates this film’s taste of something we’ve never really had before – horror’s favourite season; uncanny elsewhere, home at last and lovingly claimed.(4 / 5)
You Are Not My Mother is reviewed as part of our coverage of this year’s Dublin International Film Festival – see more from us on this year’s DIFF HERE.