You Are Not My Mother has perhaps the most eerily evocative opening of recent years. A lone buggy sits in an empty road, highlighted by the sodium glow of a street light. The buggy contains a baby, who doesn’t seem unduly concerned. A woman appears and wheels the baby away. Whatever danger seemed imminent appears to have passed. Yet the woman pushes the buggy out into a forest, where she pulls out a large book and begins to set a fire. It’s a stunningly simple but potent prologue, one which implies a willingness to tackle dark material. And one which elegantly sets out the theme of potential malevolence rooted at the heart of the family. If you’re not safe at home, then where are you? Almost unbelievably Kate Dolan’s debut feature retains the quality of that incredible opening throughout, and is arguably Glasgow FrightFest’s real masterpiece this year.
Three generations of women live in a house in a slightly benighted Dublin suburb. Matriarch Rita (Ingrid Craigie) is a believer in ancient folklore. She takes care of granddaughter Char (Hazel Doupe) as best she can, as Char’s mum Angela (Carolyn Bracken) suffers what appears to be severe depression. Not only is Char bullied for her mother’s mental illness, but as a gifted student she’s been advanced a year at school. The school board might have well have painted a target on her themselves. Angela vanishes suddenly, leaving her car abandoned with the door open, and reappears just as abruptly a few days later. But it’s a different Angela. The depression is gone. In its place is an unnerving cheerfulness, and a worrying recklessness. Char doesn’t know if it’s an improvement. For Rita – a staunch believer in the ‘old ways’, it’s a certainty it isn’t.
Dolan weaves an intricate tapestry in a tight 90 minutes that still has room to breathe and establish a rhythmic ebb and flow of domesticity and dread. While undoubtedly another windfall from the bumper crop of the folk horror renaissance, You Are Not My Mother is an entirely individual tale. Steeped in the specific folklore of Ireland and applying it to distinctly modern concerns of poverty, mental illness and bullying, it’s quietly mesmerising until it becomes truly menacing, a weirdly bracing jolt of pure horror in a FrightFest that’s been notable for a dearth of solid scares. And at its fearful beating heart is a powerful performance of incredible maturity from young Hazel Doupe, who radiates quiet strength even at the worst of her bullying ordeals – and they do get nasty. It’s another example of Kate Dolan weaving together the supernatural and the quotidian in this environment that is neither urban nor rural, until the two are inextricable. As the tension escalates it’s clear that the all-too-grounded threats of bullies are as dangerous as any force that may have taken over her body.
The myth of the Changeling is usually applied to children. Here, that dynamic is twisted to wonderful effect. Just as Char needs a solid mother figure, the ground beneath her feet crumbles further. Either her mother is suffering from severe mental illness, or this new version is an imposter. It soon becomes abundantly clear which one it is, and it isn’t a flaw that You Are Not My Mother comes down heavily on one explanation. It’s so rich in themes, context, and character that it doesn’t need to cloak its narrative in ambiguity. Instead, the unabashed horror elements augment a drama that is disturbing enough before that extra piquancy is added. It can be a harrowing one at times, but it isn’t a hopeless one. Char even gets a chance of friendship – and maybe more? – with one of the bullies Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) who becomes intrigued by Char’s situation, and is coded as something of an outsider herself.
Too often, characters in horror films are mere fodder to drive the gory goodness. In You Are Not My Mother, character comes first and the genre elements are allowed to enfold the very human family drama like a second skin. This makes the indelible imagery and the truly frightening moments all the more powerful. It’s an outstanding debut from Kate Dolan, and it richly deserves the cinema run it’s been granted from next month. Dolan herself has stated that horror is where her heart lies, and that’s wonderful news to anyone who can’t want to see what’s next from this vital, distinctive new voice.
As part of Glasgow FrightFest at Glasgow Film Festival 2022 and in Cinemas and on Digital Platform from Fri 8 Apr 2022