Anyone who’s lived with someone with mental illness knows the terror of the moment when you don’t recognize the person looking back at you. It’s something ephemeral, something in the eyes or movements that’s hard to pin down, to explain in words that don’t make you seem like the unwell one. And that’s why it’s been such good juice for horror movies over the years. From doppelgangers to Body Snatchers to nature documentaries about those little parasites that crawl into another animal’s brain and control their movements always toward some chaotic purpose—this is a story that scares us because of its closeness, its day-to-day possibility. This isn’t a giant winged devil snatching teenagers from their broken-down school bus—this is your grandma’s eyes seeing right past you, like you suddenly don’t exist.
Re-crafting a wee slice of ancient Irish folklore into the mold of modern slow-burn horror, the elegant first-time feature You Are Not My Mother from director Kate Dolan has some strong recent company in the same vein — namely Lee Cronin’s The Hole In The Ground and Corin Hardy’s The Hallow, both fine films worth seeking out. But Dolan’s excellent and unsettling film, well-acted by its two leads and with enough atmosphere for five more movies, surpasses both of those, and strides confidently up alongside the company of something like last year’s masterful Relic from Natalie Erika James. It’s that good, that emotionally intuitive.
We wouldn’t be here at all without the work of Hazel Doupe as teenager Char and Carolyn Bracken as her unwell mother Angela, who ground the film in all the ways that matter most—without their rattled bond, all of this would’ve gone nowhere, but it goes plenty. Doupe in particular is a naturalistic marvel, immediately making Char someone we feel for and want to protect. In the opening scenes of the film, as Angela’s profuse depression drags their entire household into a molasses that anyone who’s experienced depression from either side will recognize, Doupe communicates so much wounded vulnerability that you want to reach through the screen, snatch her up, and carry her off to a happier place.
These early moments between the two are crucial because, before we’ve even gotten a firm handle on the factors at play, Angela disappears. She drives her daughter to school, tells her she doesn’t know if she can do this anymore, and by the time Char’s out that afternoon, all that’s left of Mom is a car in the middle of a field, with its door slung open. The police are no help; Char’s grandmother (a terrifically ambiguous Ingrid Craige) and brother seem to be harboring secrets about Angela’s past; and a batch of nasty girls from her school remain unrelenting in their bullying. Char seems to be the only one who truly cares.
Then, as quick as she was gone, Mom comes home. She’s just sitting at the kitchen table, as if nothing had happened. Char’s relieved and ecstatic, even more so because, for a moment, anyway, her mother seems much better. Perhaps all she really needed was to run off for a day and be free, taste freedom and the outdoors? It seems like an adequate explanation for a little bit, but the top keeps spinning, and spinning, and spinning, and the smiles and strange behavior start splitting at their seams. And before you know it Char is putting the title of this film between her lips, and blowing.
As strong as Doupe is in giving us a reason to care, Bracken in the middle half of this film in giving us a reason to be terrified—little things that start out harmless quickly adopt a manic edge, unraveling in a spectacular fashion. There’s a dance scene at the heart of this movie that will make you well up just from her discomfiting performance. And the film keeps complicating itself in smart ways, teasing our sympathies, as it rolls ever relentlessly forward toward its seemingly terrible conclusion. You Are Not My Mother is a small sad fable about the biggest scariest things we face, and it’s undeniable and decisive in its power.
You Are Not My Mother was screened as part of the 2021 TIFF film festival.
Header Image Source: Fantastic Films/TIFF