In the tradition of The Babadook, Irish horror film You Are Not My Mother uses genre tropes to pry into domestic spaces and the world of mother and child. The feature directorial debut of Kate Dolan, Mother is set in the days leading up to Halloween, or Samhain on the pagan calendar. At this time of year, the boundary between the mortal realm and the spirit world is at its thinnest, which allows for something wicked this way to come. Dolan, who also wrote the script, centers her film on Char (Hazel Doupe), a somewhat troubled girl with a burn scar on her cheek and an unwell mother at home. Angela (Carolyn Bracken), her mother, seems to be in a depressive state, and struggles to get out of bed, and can’t manage to drive Char to school without running off the road. After a brief disappearance, Angela returns home and seems to be better. Though medicated, she is livelier and more engaged in daily life, though things quickly deteriorate within the walls of Char’s home.
The allegory for living with mental illness is clear, but Dolan has a light touch and doesn’t overstate the case. Mother is, first and foremost, a damn good horror movie rooted in Irish folklore. It is almost immediately obvious that there is Something Wrong With Angela, but again, Dolan doesn’t push it too hard, unfolding her story at a steady pace. The film is only 90 minutes, but it feels longer, not because of poor pacing but because of how much story Dolan packs into the runtime. As Char is dealing with whatever Angela is going through at home, she is also facing bullies at school, which gives Mother a light YA undertone that might open this up beyond the usual horror crowd. There’s a nice coming of age story tucked in here as Char tries to make sense of her world, and even makes friends with one of the bullies, Suzanne (Jordanne Jones). That budding friendship is handled so well it feels completely organic and believable that Char and Suzanne end up bonding.
But this IS a horror movie, and the third-act horrors are solid. There is a GREAT piece of body horror, and the way Char and Angela’s confrontation ties to the old Samhain traditions and Irish folklore is very fun. Mother is a very well-considered film, there are no loose ends here, but rather than feel like a hermetic environment, the combination of domestic drama and folklore-tinged horror makes it feel like Mother could be happening just now, outside the window. The thesis statement is very much “all the old stories are true”, and Dolan brings that to life in a way that feels immediate and tangible. Though the time periods and settings could not be more different, it reminds me of The Witch, the way it combines the mundane and the magical. (And Char, like Thomasin in The Witch, is a young woman dealing with a deteriorating home life and a complicated parent relationship.)
If you like your horror to come with a dose of reality, this is the film for you. Kate Dolan has fashioned a creepy, increasingly disturbing domestic horror anchored by terrific performances from Doupe and Bracken. I refuse to call it “elevated horror” because that implies horror only has artistic worth if it’s also about something else, but Mother definitely fits into that style of horror movie. It’s not about jump scares, though there are a couple good ones, and there’s no bloody slasher action. Instead, it has a girl dealing with a mother falling apart at the seams, maybe literally, and whatever found its way over as Samhain approaches.
You Are Not My Mother currently has no release date, though I hope it’s out in time for Halloween. It’s a perfect spooky season movie, and I would love to revisit it when it’s not 80 degrees outside