Breanna Lucci says filmmaker Kate Dolan has created something equally unsettling and special with her debut feature-length film.
[THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS]
You Are Not My Mother (2022) is Kate Dolan’s impressive feature film debut. A first-time screenwriter and director, Dolan crafts an unnerving story exploring family trauma, long-kept secrets, and mental illness. She dabbles in the macabre side of Irish folklore by setting the film a week before Halloween in Northern Ireland.
Char (Hazel Doupe) is a traumatized teenager living with her borderline-disabled grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie), and her depressive mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken). Late for school, Char hesitantly wakes Angela and asks for a ride. Char pleads with her to go grocery shopping, and Angela reacts by nearly crashing into a horse in the middle of the road. Char’s social life isn’t much better, as disturbing as that is. She carries a noticeable red scar on her right cheek, weaponized against her by her all-female classmates who mistreat her.
When Char discovers her mother’s car abandoned in a field, she begins to panic. She rushes home, and a police investigation commences. Angela vanishes without a trace. When she quietly returns home, something feels very off. Char then finds herself in an unsettling predicament as she must navigate the waters of hard-kept family secrets and find a way to survive them.
Doupe’s portrayal of Char is effortless and doesn’t require much dialogue to convey her inner turmoil. Her wide eyes and tense jaw tell a story all their own. The cinematography by Narayan Van Maele only elevates Doupe’s performance. Maele creates an aura of unease, revealing characters through half-closed doors, as reflections in a mirror, or from a distance. Even when nothing notable is happening on screen, this technique unsettles us. The film mainly comprises still shots, focusing heavily on Char’s face, giving glimpses into her mind. Combine that with the handheld camera for action scenes, and you have a recipe for cinematic success.
The dynamic between Doupe and Bracken is phenomenal. The two captivate in their scenes together. In the film, Char finds her mother playing “You’re Such a Good Looking Woman” by Joe Dolan on the turntable. Angela begins to dance. The upbeat, percussion-heavy song, paired with Bracken’s energy advancing from peaceful to menacing, creates a terrifying sequence. Doupe plays off this beautiful, portraying Char’s puzzlement, followed by her disgust and then her terror. The ever-bounding nature of the song rings loud in the background, giving us all a deep feeling of anxiety.
The film’s exploration of mental illness resonated with me. In Irish folklore, Changelings are fairies left in the place of stolen human children. The use of the creatures in the film helps to expose how complex navigating mental illness is. Even the calm moments feel impossible. It all crescendos as Angela unravels, leaving Char completely isolated, confused, and defeated. As someone who has struggled with family mental illness, this feels metaphoric. Mental illness ebbs and flows, but it’s always there. Generational trauma knows no bounds, and it is our burden to carry.
You Are Not My Mother is complicated, deep, and creepy. Dolan manages to tell a story of generational trauma and mental illness while maintaining the uneasy, slow-burning feelings evoked by the mystery and magic of Irish folklore. While some moments are unclear, the phenomenal performances paired with its notable cinematography make for a fantastic Saturday-night watch.
You Are Not My Mother arrives on Blu-Ray, DVD, and on-demand on June 21, 2022, From Magnolia Home Entertainment under the Magnet Label.