One of the most frightening things a person can witness is a person they love morphing into someone they don’t recognize, and there’s no way to help. What if the ghosts haunting your hallways are the memories of the times you used to share with a parent? Char (Hazel Doupe) is already having a tough time adjusting to school, fighting off bullies, and trying to make friends. Her mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), is going through a rough time, often lying in the confines of her dark bedroom. One day, Angela drives Char to school and ominously tells her, “I can’t do this anymore.” After school, Char finds her mother’s car abandoned, and she goes missing. A few days go by, and Angela returns to the house, but something is different.

Writer/director Kate Dolan presents her debut, You Are Not My Mother, with emotional precision, fusing folklore from her native Ireland and commentary about motherhood and mental illness. The film takes place on the precipice of Halloween, and there’s growing darkness overtaking what we would consider a fairy tale. Angela’s mother and Char’s grandmother, Rita (Ingrid Craigie) does a lot of Pagan rituals around the house in order to ward off a perceived evil. Dolan subverts expectations, both having a poignant message about the manifestation of mental health in deterioration inside an evolving and easy descent in to bleakness. Dolan went to speak about her influences, the Irish folklore that inspired the film, and how it was important to depict a real visualization of what mental health looks like through the eyes of a teenager.

Substream: You Are Not Your Mother starts with a very poignant scene between Angela and Char sitting in the car. Angela looks over and says, “I can’t do this anymore.” I know you wrote this film integrating your own experience as a single mother. Often, society looks at mothers as unstoppable machines and caregivers. But there’s a reality that mothers get tired, too, and it’s unfair to assume otherwise. 

Kate Dolan: It’s a crucial scene because there’s a complex history with mothers in Ireland. In Ireland, there was Catholic rule, so unwed mothers or single mothers were often mistreated, and their babies were taken away from them. But then, in another way, women are put on a pedestal as mothers and caretakers. There’s this Irish mother meme that shows a selfless woman who takes care of everybody and doesn’t have any personality herself. It was important for me to show it’s hard for a mother to live up to being on that pedestal. Saying, “actually, this is hard. I can’t do this.”

It’s a side of mothers we don’t get to see that much in mainstream mediasomething I wanted to capture. When Carolyn read that scene, she said, “I can relate to this somehow.” Sometimes you’re too afraid to say it, but sometimes, as a mother, it’s challenging to say, “I’m finding this hard.” It was a very emotional scene, and many people in the cast and crew related to it.

This film movie is based on Irish folklore about changelings and doppelgangers. I love the dualistic nature of how you present Angela’s emotions. There are some points where Angela’s very upbeat and dancing, then others where she’s furious and standoffish. It’s a molding of the real implications of how disorders can render you unrecognizable to the people you love the most, with a macabre ascetic over it. 

For us, it’s really about being a young person in a family where you see your parents struggling or having a breakdown in terms of their mental or physical health. It’s hard to see them have flaws for the first time and not know how to help them or deal with that. The film is obviously taken through a horror lens, but many of Angela’s behaviors in the movie are inspired by real-life, I suppose, bipolar manic-depressive behaviors. You can be extroverted in the middle of everybody holding everyone’s attention, but then you can have these down lows as well. It was vital to me to hammer things home through the lens of Char’s perspective. It’s about a young person seeing a parent in that kind of state and how scary that can be for you growing up.

From Char’s perspective, she’s dealing with a lot of things. She’s being bullied at school, trying to make friends, and dealing with her mom and her struggles. There’s also her grandma Rita, who does these pagan rituals that she doesn’t understand. There’s a lot on her, and she’s trying to handle it as gracefully as a teenager can. All of that can be tough for one person, and you and Hazel conveyed that well. 

I think there’s an impact of having to be a caretaker for somebody when you’re too young even to understand that or their behaviorit’s incredibly isolating. It makes you feel very unsafe in your own home, outside your home, how you feel in school, with friends, etc. I think it’s a very authentic depiction of what that can be.

Uncle Aaron deals with everything slightly different. He’s a caretaker as much as he can, but with Angela’s mental illness struggles, he has his way of dealing with it. The women in the story try to meet Angela conversationallyAaron strives to be the voice to keep the house together. It’s an interesting sub-commentary on patriarchal/matriarchal differences in the household. 

You know, it’s funny. In precarious family situations throughout my life, I find I have a lot of uncles who are well-meaning, loving, and affectionate. Sometimes, they don’t know how to help you emotionally in those kinds of situations. So, they will do things physically like, “I’m going to fix this door, or I’m going to go buy you some food.” Uncles do things that help you differently, but they have a block to get to an emotional level. So they have to show their love in a way that is, you know, a bit more rigid.

It’s a different kind of love, but it’s essential in its way. I wanted to show that side of the family as well. There’s not always everyone who knows how to deal with that kind of stuffthey have to find their way.

There are particular scenes in the film that are unsettling, but not overtly. The steady build from the darkened rooms that Angela is in when she’s in the jaws of depression and the kitchen scenethat pins and needles feelings climb throughout You Are Not My Mother. They show the difficulties of mental illness on a human spectrum with a supernatural element.

We wanted to depict aspects of mental illness authentically. I suppose a lot of the scarier scenes are based on how mental illness can manifest. The crazy dancing scene, I think many people can relate to that. Even if you see your parents getting drunk for the first time dancing as a kidthat can be scary because you’re seeing them out of control.

So, we were showing as a child of somebody seeing their parent behave in a way that is not the right way they should be behaving, also, how mental illness can present itself in people. The Irish folklore that inspired the dance scenes like the fairies and the mythology in the film—they love dancing and music. The research that I was reading was stories of them leading people to dance until their feet were bleeding. We used elements of the folklore that would line up with what we wanted to present Angela and her fight with mental illness. I suppose they complemented each other, or it felt proper for both to play with that ambiguity.

Photo Credit: Magnet Releasing

Read our review for You Are Not My Mother from TIFF 2021 here.