Naemi Dehde explores folklore, fear and family in Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother.

At its Irish premiere, You Are Not My Mother was introduced as a “bloody good film,” and indeed it was. Developed through the Screen Ireland POV scheme aimed at female filmmakers, Kate Dolan’s feature debut skilfully caters to audiences seeking an atmospheric adrenaline thrill. 

The film follows teenager Char, who lives with her unresponsive mother Angela and murmuring grandmother Rita in a North Dublin housing estate. Aside from being an outsider in school, Char does not find much comfort at home due to the strained relationship with her mother. When the latter briefly goes missing and returns as a completely changed person, Char embraces this new version of Angela. Things between the two seem to improve. But hold on, this is a horror film. So yes, the dream of harmonious family life quickly turns into Char’s living–and dancing–nightmare (which involves a very unsettling but captivating performance by Carolyn Bracken, who plays Angela).

During the Q & A at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, writer-director Kate Dolan stressed the significance of her film’s setting which stands out from other Irish Folk horror films. Having grown up in a similar location as Char, Dolan shifts away from the trope of “an abandoned cabin in the woods”, as she puts it, and places supernatural evil at the core of a family in suburban Dublin. Notably, this family consists of three generations of women: child, parent and grandparent. Although the focus on dysfunctional families is a common theme in the horror genre, You Are Not My Mother succeeds in adding something new to a well-known formula by combining Irish Folk horror with the emotional complexity of a family drama.

What makes the film’s plot so compelling is a lack of supernatural elements in the beginning. Inspired by cinematic pieces like The Exorcist (1973) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968), it draws audiences in by allowing them enough time to empathise with the characters on screen. Then the “cover your eyes and start shrieking”-part starts. Dolan stressed how the monstrous representation of women allows them the breathing space for nuance and duality. “They can be more than just one thing”, she pointed out. In her own film, this idea not only applies to the creature itself (it’s a “creature feature” after all) but also to the other characters on screen. Char, for instance, really comes to live through Dolan’s empathetic script and Hazel Doupe’s remarkable performance.

A significant contributor to You Are Not My Mother’s unnerving atmosphere is its well-timed use of sound effects. In its ninety minute running time, a panoply of non-linear sounds enters an unholy marriage with the spooky soundtrack, composed by Die Hexen, and has you at the edge of your seat wondering what kind of evil lurks in the shadows of Char’s home. Thanks to this highly effective use of sound, the film successfully blurs the lines between real and supernatural without an overreliance on special effects.

Given how well-executed You Are Not My Mother generally is, the ending was a bit of a let-down. Its slow-burn build-up ends in a fairly average horror film finale. The narrative hastily ties up loose ends which makes it seem out of breath on the last few metres before the finishing line. Nonetheless, Dolan’s debut proves that it doesn’t always take a big budget to create an unnerving cinematic experience. Overall, You Are Not My Mother skilfully weaves together the threats of familial dysfunction and Irish folk horror into a beautiful patchwork quilt of horror. It’s definitely worth a watch! 

You Are Not My Mother screened on 24th February 2022 at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.

You Are Not My Mother is released in cinemas from 4th March 2022.


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