You Are Not My Mother Review: A Horrifying Debut from Director Kate Dolan - VRGyani News and Media

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Monday, September 13, 2021

You Are Not My Mother Review: A Horrifying Debut from Director Kate Dolan

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Kate Dolan’s feature debut You Are Not My Mother, beyond its atmospheric direction and tight control of tone, is how it almost doesn’t need its supernatural element because its themes are so strong and thoughtful. While horror films have never shied away from exploring disease including mental illness, You Are Not My Mother does it particularly well by showing the toll it can take on a child when they can’t help their parent. Working from the perspective of a teenage daughter, Char (Hazel Doupe), Dolan’s movie is at turns both horrifying and tragic. While we don’t get a sense of the particulars of Char’s relationship with her mother, we can understand something has been lost and there’s a question of whether or not it can ever be reclaimed.

Char’s mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) has not been feeling well. This only makes life harder for the young Char, who is frequently bullied at school and whose peers regard not only her but her entire family, including her grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie), as mentally ill. One day Angela goes missing and Char isn’t sure what to do, but when Angela returns, she seems different. There’s been a shift in her personality that Angela isn’t sure what to make of, although Rita feels the need to turn to some pagan magic to try and ward off a dark spirit that has entered their lives. As Char wrestles with what to do about her mother, she’s not sure if her mother has simply fallen into mental illness, or if there’s a dark, supernatural force at work.

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To Dolan’s credit, she also works to keep us guessing for most of the film if there’s even a supernatural element. Anything that’s portrayed as supernatural could simply be mental illness on the part of a character. A shocking opening scene shows Rita putting a baby in a circle of fire, and we’re left to wonder if this is some kind of dark spell or a manifestation of a mentally ill mind. Dolan doesn’t really let us into any kind of certainty about the presence of a supernatural force until the third act, and by then the film kind of has to find a way to resolve itself. While I’d argue that one angle is superior to another (after all, mental illness isn’t really something that can be “defeated” while supernatural creatures typically can be beaten in some way or another), it at least makes for a good character arc for Char, who has to come of age in a way that means confronting her feeling about her mother.

If there’s one area that could have been developed, it would have been that mother-daughter relationship. Dolan largely generalizes the bond between Char and Angela, so there’s no texture there, and while one could argue that generality makes it more relatable to the audience, I’d counter that specificity always gets you to the core emotional relationship. If Char and Angela had shared a love of baking or cycling or something, that wouldn’t diminish the overall depiction of their bond, but here, we really only get a glimpse of how they liked pumpkin carving together for Halloween. If you’re going to make a movie called “You Are Not My Mother”, it would have helped to gain a better sense of who Angela previously was, although to be fair, that would then heighten the supernatural aspect rather than leaving it a question of mental illness.

However, this is a minor qualm against a film that shows Dolan is a rising talent whose skills deserved to be acknowledged. She expertly uses what was clearly a small budget to maximum advantage, relying more on atmosphere and performances rather than any fancy visual effects or even jump scares to terrify the audience. We’re sucked into this story because Dolan makes us care about the pain it’s inflicting on Char as an innocent teenager who now has to figure out how to take care of a parent, and those are stakes we can all understand and empathize with regardless of the supernatural element. Char’s in a tough spot not because her mother may be possessed or replaced or whatever supernatural thing; she’s in a tough spot because her mother is behaving in a bizarre, inexplicable fashion, and when the film puts you in that mindset, you can’t help but be unnerved.

Rating: B

You Are Not My Mother does not currently have a release date.

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