By: Brendan Graham
Some of the most effective horror in recent memory involves the tragedy of mental illness and its effects on the family. It’s heartbreaking to lose someone you love, but the feeling is often worsened when they are alive, but unable to function or cope. In the world of horror, we often see this paired with themes like possession, or torment from spirits beyond.
Films like 2020’s Relic or 2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan featured daughters dealing with the eventual loss of their mothers due to health or memory issues, while something more malevolent is happening behind the scenes. The problem with relying on mental illness as a plot device is that it’s often misconstrued or misrepresented. YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER provides a better representation (not perfect) while also taking us on a chilling and emotional journey. YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER is about the dark secrets a family can hold onto, and what that does to the people they love.
Following an opening that involves a ritual with a stolen baby, we are introduced to a teenager named Char (Hazel Doupe) who lives with her mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken), her grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie), and her uncle (Paul Reid) in the dingy parts of Dublin. Her home life isn’t a happy one, with her mother constantly bedridden with depression, and emotionally distant. Her school life isn’t much better, with her constantly getting tormented and harassed for being moved ahead a year academically. One day, Angela vanishes, and Char’s world, which had already been on the brink of crumbling, is destroyed with grief and worry. When her mother finally reappears, something feels off. Is her mental illness getting worse? Or is it something pretending to be her mother? Char begins to investigate her mother’s disappearance, and the dark history of her family to truly uncover whether this woman is really her mother or something else entirely.
I was pleasantly surprised with how well-constructed and paced this film was. Doupe is spectacular as Char, emoting the burdens of an unavailable parent amongst the usual growing pains with such grace and charm, she feels believable. Bracken also puts in a strong and unsettling performance as Angela, which causes much unease throughout the entire film. The cinematography is moody and mysterious, which envelops the viewer in the world and the conflict within it.
The score by Die Hexen is also delightfully haunting. Director Kate Dolan paces the film quite well, building our connection with Char slowly, but surely, drawing out elements of Irish folklore and creating a few surprises with it along the way. As an audience member, we want to feel uncomfortable and unsure of what is coming next, and YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER accomplishes this from the get-go. There are certain sequences in the film that are genuinely chilling, and some well-timed jump scares. Mental illness isn’t used as a crutch to explain the troubling behavior, and allows room for the audience to develop a connection to both mother and daughter. It pulls you in to really feel for their predicament, which is something I also really appreciated. As much as I really enjoyed this one, there is a factor that kind of plays against it here, as it feels incredibly close to some of the tones of Ari Aster’s Hereditary. The theme of inherited family trauma, and without going into spoiler territory, one of the characters greatly reminded me of an important character from Aster’s film. Is it intentional? Hard to say, but it did make it a bit more predictable for me (or maybe I’m just too good at guessing story elements). The ending of the film loses some of its momentum as well, by some odd character choices that feel a bit too forced.
YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER is an impressive debut feature by Dolan, that captures the fear of losing our loved ones and combines it with Irish mythology quite well. The tone is unnerving, the lead performances are quite fantastic, and the slow burn pace is well-executed. I look forward to seeing what else Dolan has in store for us. I foresee a very successful future in the world of horror.
YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER will be in limited theaters and on Video On Demand services on March 25, 2022.