Writing last week’s list of Irish horror movies, timed for St. Patrick’s Day viewing, made me realize just how many of those films are fascinated with changeling folklore. New release You Are Not My Mother is no exception, though it elevates itself by enveloping its characters in some particularly potent real-world terrors.
If the mention of changelings sounds like a spoiler—well, please note that the movie is literally called You Are Not My Mother. As you might guess, the film unfurls from the point of view of the daughter in the story: Dublin teenager Char (a wonderful Hazel Doupe). Her introverted nature and superstar student status have made her an outcast at school, at best quietly eating lunch by herself, at worst being targeted by a vicious clique of mean girls, led by the pushy Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) and the possibly homicidal Kelly (Katie White).
Char’s life would be crappy enough under these circumstances, but the fraught situation at home means there’s no escape from her misery. Her mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), is prone to sudden mood swings and bizarre behavior; early in the film, she abandons her car and vanishes for a period of hours, something that Char’s uncle Aaron (Paul Reid) and grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie) face with the weary energy of people who’ve been dealing with a troubled loved one for decades. Angela’s fragile mental state is something she can’t control and nobody blames her for it, but it’s exhausting for everyone in her orbit—especially Char, whose pain is evident even before we get a flashback to happier days when Angela was more stable.
But! This is no ordinary tale of teen angst. You Are Not My Mother telegraphs from its very first scene that there’s something more to Angela’s spiraling illness than brain chemistry. Something perhaps rather witchy. The audience knows that the “birthmark” on Char’s face is actually a burn scar, the result of a mysterious ritual Granny conducted on Char as an infant, even if it takes Char most of the movie to get to the bottom of her family’s big secret. And there are other omens along the way—the weird sounds Char hears at night and her distressing nightmares, the fact that Suzanne’s father warns her to avoid Char’s family, and the not-so-accidental fact that You Are Not My Mother takes place in the days leading up to Halloween.
With You Are Not My Mother, writer-director Kate Dolan has crafted a compelling exploration of growing up in a world that can be unbearably cruel. Even if you stripped away its folk-horror elements, Char’s ordeal would be harrowing—but the supernatural evils that creep in end up being both a metaphor for a family falling apart under the cloud of mental illness, and a source of some absolutely nail-biting tension and frights. Strong performances across the board (Bracken is especially great; while her role does get some special-effects enhancement, it’s mostly propelled by her ability to perfectly embody both a playful mother and a near-feral monster) and a unsettling score by composer Die Hexen further make You Are Not My Mother a movie that transcends its more familiar plot points to carve out a harrowing little niche all its own.
You Are Not My Mother arrives in theaters and on demand March 25.
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