Monday, April 22, 2024

Movie Review: ‘You Are Not My Mother’ is A Fascinating Irish Folklore Horror

 


Director: Kate Dolan

Writer: Kate Dolan

Stars: Hazel Doupe, Carolyn Bracken, Paul Reid

Synopsis: In a North Dublin housing estate Char’s mother goes missing. When she returns Char is determined to uncover the truth of her disappearance and unearth the dark secrets of her family.


 

Horror movies are typically difficult to review. There is an argument that to fully appreciate the genre itself, it is best to go in completely blind. To critique a movie like Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother requires dissecting some of its more nuanced elements, which may then unravel the thread of the story for a viewer who may have benefited more from the story’s crackling slowburn aura. With that in mind, all readers may want to know is that Dolan achieves a tense, atmospheric take on an Irish folktale which doesn’t always hit its mark story-wise, but successfully maintains a level of quiet, creeping dread which is enough to unsettle any horror fan.

A part of the sub-genre of elevated horror, You Are Not My Mother is as much invested in psychological drama and mental health observation as it is with the more pulpy aspects the movie is occasionally ground down by. Its take very much follows suit from the likes of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, with a pinch of Robert Eggers’ work – specifically The Witch. The draw here is the slow build up of tense confusion as more questions than answers are pulled into the light, and eventually the (sometimes) satisfying results when everything starts to break down.

Char (Hazel Doupe) is a teenage girl from Dublin whose mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) suffers from a severe form of depression. Angela often can’t leave her bed, preferring to lie silently in the dark and let her own mother Rita (Ingrid Craigie) look after Char. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this leads to many difficulties for Char, who is subsequently bullied in school for having a strange family. Everything changes when Angela disappears after taking Char to school one day, announcing that she “can’t do this anymore”. 

Char is panicked and confused, and this confusion only worsens when her mother returns home in good spirits, dancing around the kitchen and cooking dinner for the family. Naturally, Char has questions. However, Rita is reluctant to supply any, and instead gives her granddaughter a haphazardly crafted ball of twigs for her protection. But what does Char need protection from? What secrets are her family hiding from her? And why does her mother seem so different?

For the majority of its runtime, we are as much in the dark about Angela’s circumstances as Char is. A scene where the police are called in the wake of Angela’s disappearance is notable for Char being dismissed from the room before Rita and Angela’s brother Aaron (Paul Reid) will explain more about Angela’s character. We are led upstairs with Char who sullenly begins rooting out pictures of her mother to hand around. The obvious questions swirl in the ether: is Angela dead? Was she abused? Did Rita neglect her? An opening scene features a baby being taken into a forest by a younger Rita and subsequently burned. Was this Angela? 

Anyone who knows Irish folklore will quickly understand the situation and the significance of the film’s title. Perhaps that in itself is too much of a giveaway. But what is more important is the cement-thick fog of atmosphere layered throughout You Are Not My Mother. Cinematographer Narayan van Maele conjures a deeply unsettling force within the dusty house, located in a drab housing estate in north Dublin. Darkness hides in every corner of the house, suggesting a milieu of shadows dancing within – out on the streets the grey open sky hints at a purgatory Char cannot escape from. Later, the street kids will run around lighting bonfires for Samhain, or Halloween as it’s commonly known, crackling small lights into the inky black air. 

Inside her house and out, Char is trapped: bullies accost her, threatening to burn her face, and worried parents instruct their children not to go near her or her family. Inside, Angela’s increasingly strange and erratic behavior creates an ever more caustic environment for Char, Rita, and Aaron. 

Similarly, composer Die Hexen’s captivating score strikes through each moment with a string or two underscoring the real moments of danger, and discordant flashes of horns throughout the calmer moments, reminding us that no scene is safe for the audience to drop its guard in. John Cutler’s editing does exactly the same thing in a different way – jaggedly cutting from a scene before it reaches its natural apex, leaving the audience reeling as we try to adjust to the jarring tonal changes. It all adds to a satisfying unsettling feeling.

Doupe is good as the often-simple Char, a girl who lacks any real agency in the story until the final third. There is not much asked of Doupe apart from some confused facial expressions and a slight twinge of worry, mixed with anger and fear. She carries these off well, but ultimately Char doesn’t have much in the way of character development for a viewer to get invested in. It is Bracken who has the biggest role here: Angela walks a gossamer thin line between crippling mental illness and a suggestively sinister monster with a sweet veneer. There are moments where she must oscillate between Char’s wayward yet improving mother, and some ethereal, otherworldly phantom whose intentions are unknown; and she does so in a subtle, quietly dreadful way. It’s Bracken’s performance which catches the eye, and drives the majority of the tension throughout. 

The central tenet of You Are Not My Mother is whether Angela’s mental illness is the banal reality of modern life, or something much more terrifying and unexplainable. It’s this line which the audience walks with Char, and only when the third act happens and the plot begins to unravel does You Are Not My Mother begin to falter. Once the veneer of mystery has been burned away, we are left with a run-of-the-mill horror which relies too heavily on genre tropes to have any lasting resonance. It feels anti-climactic to have built all that tension and dread, only to squander it on a typically cliché finale. The rich mythology promised throughout is then discarded as a more traditional jump-scare precedent is established and the heart-pumping tension, ironically, leavens to a mild arrhythmia. 

Ultimately, You Are Not My Mother is a fascinating watch with an excellent production value. It is let down only by its lackluster third act, which does a disservice to the exemplary set up and worldbuilding done in the first hour. As genre fare goes, it’s admirable for having tried something different, something which, to its credit, it often achieves.

 

Grade – C+

 

 

*YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER debuts in UK Cinemas and Digital on April 8th!

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