A fraught mother-daughter dynamic fills every frame of director Kate Dolan’s debut feature You Are Not My Mother, even when half of the duo is physically absent from the screen. What begins as an anxiety-inducing study of what happens when parents can’t protect and nurture their own children descends into a half-baked domestic horror that keeps its most interesting musings at arm’s length. While no Irish horror film is required to exploit the country’s centuries-old Gaelic folklore for the purpose of slick, socially conscious entertainment, it feels just as inappropriate to insert this phenomena into a film only to ultimately leave it by the wayside. Sure, dysfunctional parents are just as horrifying as fae folk in their ability to unmoor a child from societal safety nets—but both observations are equally tiring if they’re simply playing into tired tropes and drab narrative conventions.
Suffering from the excruciating existence inherent to teenage girlhood, Char (Hazel Doupe) finds her existential condition compounded by that of her mother’s (Carolyn Bracken). On what should be an ordinary drop-off at school, Char frantically takes the wheel after her mother nearly collides with an ominous black stallion. Exasperated by her lack of regard for both of their lives, Char storms out of the car and arrives at school on foot. After enduring her daily dose of somewhat sexually-charged bullying at an all-girls school, Char embarks home, but stumbles upon a stomach-churning discovery. Her mother’s car is still parked haphazardly on the side of the road where it had swerved earlier, the driver’s side door open and the vehicle abandoned. Police are promptly notified, but they insist that there’s really not much to be done without more time passing. Char’s maternal grandmother (Ingrid Craigie) and uncle (Paul Reid) are distraught, but an air of familiarity around the issue further perturbs Char—that is, until her mother returns home in the dead of night, leaving the front door eerily ajar after her re-entry. While everyone should ostensibly be relieved, it seems that something sinister has changed within Char’s mother—an uncanny feeling aptly described by the film’s title. In her mother’s newfound warmth and devotion, there’s also a stark unfamiliarity. Perhaps an age-old entity might be behind this disquieting shift in personality?
You Are Not My Mother is an exercise in dealing with parents who are too far gone in their own mental issues to adequately support the struggles of their own children, yet this narrative device is both underexplored and overutilized. The film never establishes any tangible mental struggle for Char’s mother outside of prolonged sleep cycles and her weary mumbling of “I can’t do this anymore,” the achingly pessimistic phrase that causes Char to walk herself to school before her mother’s eventual disappearance. However, it’s clear from the film’s first moments that Char may have been victim to far more heinous parental crimes than being emotionally neglected due to regular bouts of depression. A bright red scar that streaks the side of her face alludes to a past rife with physical and emotional turmoil. Perhaps this is why Char remains cold toward her mother even with her improved behavior—sometimes, these acts of affection are simply too little too late. Yet, taking the time to navigate the nuances of this relationship would have raised the film’s stakes considerably, particularly when there’s not a whole lot of narrative meat to begin with.
The film’s other preoccupation is with specific folkloric elements, namely fairies and changelings. Yet the blending of these mythical elements with its overall mental health angle doesn’t quite mesh, as both aspects are muted in order to focus on building atmospheric dread. This is, however, where You Are Not My Mother deserves all due credit. Light, shadow and movement are gorgeously captured by cinematographer Narayan Van Maele, instilling each shot with a horrible sense of imminent danger. These moments are most effectively executed when the dark corners of Char’s childhood home envelop menacing figures that are more familiar than she might like to admit. Playing with deep blacks and vibrant reds, Char’s intense (and oft-foreshadowed) fear of fire is baked into the film’s own cinematic language. Though You Are Not My Mother showcases its crew’s sharp visual eye, this does not entirely make up for an aimless plot which weaves two distinct narrative threads that are never sufficiently fleshed out. The historical significance that these storied creatures hold in Ireland is all but ignored, despite a scene that finds Char and her classmates on a museum trip that houses an exhibit on the very topic. Additionally, for a film containing three generations of women—Char, her mother and her grandmother—the relationship between mental illness, genetics and motherhood (and women who are considered “evil” for their supposed lack of maternal instinct) is frustratingly non-existent. Again, all of the ingredients to wrestle with a thorny subject of massive significance are plainly there, but the filmmaker ultimately flinches as she approaches the topic.
Brimming with potential that it doesn’t exactly follow through on, You Are Not My Mother is nonetheless another aesthetically rich horror film that clearly mines an individual’s personal history. Unfortunately, incorporating our own lived experiences into creative pursuits can lead to a muddled message if the artist is not wholeheartedly committed to dissecting these experiences in all of their messed-up glory. There is no benefit in shying away from the topic out of restraint; holding oneself back will only yield art that feels insincere and incomplete. With stunning visual finesse, Dolan surely has a slew of bold, exciting projects ahead of her. Hopefully these films are more introspective and investigative with whatever intersection of mythic monstrosity and ordinary human fallacy they choose to focus on.
Director: Kate Dolan
Writers: Kate Dolan
Stars: Hazel Doupe, Carolyn Bracken, Ingrid Craigie, Paul Reid, Jordanne Jones
Release Date: March 25, 2022 (Magnolia Pictures)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan