Young teen Char (Hazel Doupe) prepares to go to school on any regular, mundane day in Northern Dublin. Her mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), retreats to her dark bedroom in a self-imposed exile. On this day, something is off. While Angela agrees to drive Char to school, she is completely detached from everything, and in an emotional, exasperated admission, she says that “she can’t do this anymore.” When Char gets home, her mom has disappeared without a trace. Thus, Kate Nolan’s feature debut dives into an unsettling mystery. You Are Not My Mother is a twist on old Irish folklore about changelings and people being swamped for a devious copy of themselves. Here, there’s a dual meaning to that. Obviously, in horror, we have tales of something unexplainable feeding upon our very essence. Also, mental illness steals and drains us of the same things we hold dear about ourselves.
Char is somewhat of a pariah in her daily life. She often gets bullied and picked on at school. (by a popular girl named Kelly (Katie White). She also lives with her grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie) and uncle Aaron (Paul Reid). When her mother Angela comes back out of the blue a couple of days later, she’s a little more energetic. A little aggressive. Rita and Aaron are conscientious and hands-on with trying to watch out for her. As the days go by, Angela increasingly rejects them – her behavior becoming more animalistic. In the middle is Char, who does not know what to think and is trying to connect with a mother that she only has pleasant memories of when she was younger.
Has Angela fallen under the waves of depression, or is there a more maleficent force at play? Are her family members a bit too overprotective, or are their causes for concern? Dolan does an intelligent walk down the tightrope with that. There are some shuddersome moments of immediate shock strung throughout the film’s runtime. Visuals are bottled up, lurking in the shadows, and abnormal behaviors are plentiful. Others are abrupt and outbursts. Rita turns to pagan rituals and relics to keep evil spirits at bay, which take root in Irish culture. We all have our ways to ward off “evil spirits,” vibes, or mumbo jumbo. Some are passed down through tradition, and we acquire others through life for us to cope with life’s struggles.
While Aaron tries to appear the stern presence of the household, Nolan develops the matriarchal links as the strong point. Rita and Char both want what’s best for Angela – but both have different ways of arriving at that point. Angela seems to resent Rita’s protectiveness, while Char wishes she had that type of presence in her life. It’s a compelling dynamic that makes Angela’s unstable personality ingredients that much more tragic. The ‘before’ Angela is hinted at through flashbacks and one gentle photograph. The ways we immortalize people – the screenshots and memories- are also the things that can cut the deepest. Dolan doesn’t shy away from classical elements that we know from quasi-possession films. But she also doesn’t lean into them too far to take away from the philosophical food provided.
Deteriorating mental states can seem terrifying both to the afflicted and the direct line of contact. Whereas it can feel that the only explanation is the most far-fetched one, The title, You Are Not My Mother implies the amphibious journey that the audience takes and the changes, either natural or not.
Photo Credit: TIFF