by Jordan King
Irish writer-director Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother, a Samhain chiller nestled within the framework of a sympathetically crafted story about mothers, daughters, and the monstrousness of mental illness’ ravaging effect on both the afflicted and their loved ones was one of TIFF 2021’s most surprising standouts.
Dolan’s film begins with a portentous wide shot of a baby’s pram beneath the lamplight of an empty street. Then we are taken with the child into the thick of dark and twisted woods, where a ritual is performed as the baby is placed in a ring of fire. We don’t know who the baby is, or who has taken them, but with the deftest of touches, Dolan has disturbed an image of urban domesticity and taken it into the realms of the supernatural and the chilling – though nothing is immediately revealed to provide context for this most cold of opens, the sense that something wicked this way comes is palpable.
From here, we meet teenager Char (Hazel Doupe). She lives with her mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) and her grandmother (a fantastic Ingrid Craige), and acts often as carer for both – though it isn’t formally named as such, Angela exhibits all the signs of bipolar disorder, whilst Char’s superstitious grandmother is obsessed with totems and crafted trinkets designed to ward off hostile presences. Living in a house with jaundiced yellow walls and a hollowness that no number of crafts can vanquish, the family exist in stasis – shadows don’t fall on the room of Char’s bedridden mother so much as drape themselves, with DP Narayan Van Maele’s superb use of negative space in shot compositions emphasising lack and isolating characters in equal measure.
When Angela disappears after a catastrophic attempt to drive Char to school, returning with a renewed vigour long since thought lost for good, things seem to be looking up for the clan – even if grandma has her deeply-rooted reservations about what her daughter’s change in spirits may dredge up from her own past. As Angela’s behaviour grows more erratic however, with Bracken playing the manic highs and all-consuming lows of bipolarity on a precise border between something rationalisable and something altogether more monstrously manifested, Char finds herself falling deeper into her own private abyss. At school, Char is bullied for her mother’s mental health struggles, while at home she is expected to navigate the reality that neither her mother or grandmother can care for her and her big brother is largely absent from their lives. To this extent, what Dolan does brilliantly which so many other ‘mental illness as horror’ films fail to is she recognises the difficulty of not only living with a loved one who is ill and the pain which that incurs, but also the difficulty of wanting to simultaneously help and escape, and of navigating the already trying minefield of teenage life and school under the shadow of a trauma which opportunistic bullies will seize upon and torture you with.
Hazel Doupe conveys the multifaceted depth of Char’s struggle with real steel and boundless expressivity, a necessity when fixed upon with such intensity by both Dolan’s highly character focussed screenplay and Van Maele’s lens, which relishes in capturing Char and scrutinising how she struggles to internalise her unspooling sense of self and security. As a counterpoint to Bracken’s at times almost Brechtian exercise in presentational performance – angular, exaggerated movements and heightened expressions suggest what late stage revelations can only confirm or deny – Doupe marks herself out as one to watch.
Unlike some other recent genre fare, You Are Not My Mother impressively never loses sight of its intensely human themes and subject matter as Dolan grows more willing to show her hand in terms of the film’s supernatural elements. As Die Hexen’s haunting score escalates along with imagery entrenched in folklore and fae mysticism, Dolan matches the dramatic gear shifts and striking revelations about the source of Char and her family’s troubles by emotionally grounding events in the conviction that we’re witnessing someone’s fear for someone else rather than of something else manifesting.
With roots in both social realism as well as folk legend, You Are Not My Mother is a horror that grows in beautifully twisted ways to form an oftentimes overwhelming tapestry of trauma and terror, illness and the myriad ways both imagined and real it manifests in extreme feelings of otherness and ostracisation. “Family is the scariest fucking thing on the planet,” so says Char’s bully-turned-confidante Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) at one point, and she’s not wrong. This is why we prefer to tell ourselves stories about monsters – it is far easier to imagine facing up to something you hate and fight it than it is to be there and see someone you love change before your eyes.
You Are Not My Mother played as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021