Ireland takes Halloween (or Samhain) very seriously. The bullies create massive bonfires, grannies practice ancient rituals, and changelings come to dinner. But while October stands as the strangest month of the year, some households deal with dark and unsettling behavior on a daily basis. Starting her story a few days before Halloween, writer and director Kate Dolan uses the oppressive and isolating feelings which come from living in a house where mental illness controls every aspect of a family’s life. Already covering a pretty tragic and debilitating theme, Dolan did not need to include any supernatural aspects, but as the mental illness progresses, the director leaves the audience wondering what comes from the defects of the human mind and what comes from something more monstrous. YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER is a psychological Irish folk horror tale that creepily explores a damaged family dynamic
Possibly the only image more unsettling than a clown standing underneath a streetlight in the middle of the night is a stroller with a crying baby sitting underneath a streetlight in the middle of the night. The movie starts on such a dark and somber note only to intensify the emotions as the mood changes from unease to terror as the baby plays a role in a dangerous ritual. Presumably, years later, the old woman (Ingrid Craigie) who performed the spell in the opening scene can now be seen at the home she shares with her daughter Angela (Carolyn Bracken), and her granddaughter Char (Hazel Doupe). The granny tries to show support for her family, but her physical limitations prevent her from her fully helping Char (aside from some magical interventions). And unfortunately, Char’s mother does not offer much in the way of love or attention because she struggles with pretty severe depression.
Dolan’s gloomy atmosphere appears in every sequence of the film from the cold and drab sky to the overly somber music. Char distances herself from everyone and with the absence of companions, the constant reminder of ‘lack’ or ‘missing’ becomes apparent from the very first moments. The dreariness of Char’s life hits a climactic event when her mentally ill mother almost kills the two of them on their way to school. And after Angela’s ominous proclamation of “I can’t do this anymore,” she disappears. The family fears the worse suspecting anything from kidnapping to suicide, but Angela surprises everyone when she returns with a new bright and sunny view on life.
Char wants to believe her mother rose above the demons in her head and finally found a way to battle her mental illness. However, besides the happy dancing moments in the kitchen, Angela also displays very creepy characteristics. The physical performance of Bracken creates some memorable scenes as she violently moves her body which unsettles her daughter and the audience alike. And Ingrid Craige as the suspicious granny (who performs protection spells on the down-low) is honestly an underplayed character in the film. Bracken and Doupe give such amazing performances, so understandably the film might not have enough room for a third stand-out female lead.
Sometimes when the deliberate pacing combines with the already dreary backdrop, it makes the film a bit of a slog, but the sound design, soundtrack, cinematography, and acting make YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER memorably engaging. However, the slow progression of the narrative does help the story of depression seamlessly transition into the Irish changeling myth. And while Dolan does not create anything new by combining mental illness and the supernatural, the haunting atmosphere and Bracken’s aggressive depiction of madness/possession will keep the audience on edge.
YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER played as a part of this year’s Final Girls Berlin Film Festival.