The looming, relentless specter of mental illness is the focus of Kate Dolan’s horrifying You Are Not My Mother.
Particularly as of late, horror films have used mental illness to explore what really scares us. The genre is uniquely set up to examine the inherent fear of disease. The unknowable and uncontrollable are far scarier than what we can reason with. Some films use that better than others. You Are Not My Mother freshly explores those same themes, choosing to focus on how that affects a child who is not equipped to handle the role they have been thrust into.
A teenage girl, Char(Hazel Doupe), lives with her mother and grandmother(Ingrid Craigie) in Dublin, Ireland. Her mother suffers from debilitating depression that prevents her from being the parent Char needs. While this is told in broad strokes only, we get the sense that this has been the situation for a long time. One day her mother, Angela(Carolyn Bracken), goes missing, and when she returns, Char becomes convinced that what came back was not her mother. However, some secrets are better left uncovered as Char learns she has more to worry about than her mother’s return.
The modern reimagining of a terrifying folk monster is the perfect metaphor for a child trying to understand the inexplicable. Char’s mother has struggled with mental illness for most of her life. The early picture presented speaks of a mother/daughter dynamic that is way out of balance. Char acts more as a caregiver than Angela, who struggles just getting out of bed each day.
Horror works best when we feel vulnerable. Nothing propels that feeling better than the innocence of youth. You Are Not My Mother is the most focused when exploring the line between mental illness and something even more insidious. Although it isn’t quite as scary once the truth is revealed, it is chilling enough to make you side-eye your family members when they behave oddly.
You Are not My Mother is so frightening because it puts the viewer in Char’s shoes. Forced to walk with her through her bleak daily life allows Dolan to control the tone. There is a lot to unpack in Char’s world. It isn’t just what is happening at home that Char has to worry about. She is navigating through tricky waters at school as well. Everyone at school treats her and her family as damaged goods. An escalating bullying situation doesn’t allow Char even a moment to relax. With dangers at home and school, her mother’s increasingly bizarre behavior troubles her.
Her grandmother treats Angela’s return as something to be warded against with pagan rituals and whispered warnings leaving no room for Char to grasp for help. A disturbing opening scene with a crying infant and a fire makes us question whether mental illness is inevitable in this family. We are left just as confused and unsettled through the majority of the runtime as Char. Everything we see could be the behavior of a mentally ill person in crisis or could be the work of ancient magic just as mysterious. Set just before Halloween, You Are Not Alone allows the question of supernatural elements to linger until the very end.
An argument could be made that the supernatural element isn’t needed; the film is so thoughtfully constructed. Dolan maintains control throughout the film, never letting the unexplainable dread and dispair teeter too far one way or another. The third act resolution gives Char the chance to grow from a scared child to a woman with the agency to save herself as she is forced to wrestle with her feelings for her mother and what she has become. Although You Are Not My Mother is more terrifying before the truth is revealed, Dolan masterfully holds us in this place of high anxiety that threatens to consume us. It’s a tightrope walk that shows enormous promise for future projects.
Few films have the emotional weight to scare you while simultaneously making you feel hopeless. Dolan’s debut, You Are not My Mother, is one of those rare examples. Moody, atmospheric, and chilling it is the rare film that delivers the goods even with a small budget. Horror doesn’t need buckets of blood or special effects to be impactful. Dolan makes the most of her actors’ performances to drive the fear.
You Are Not My Mother is showing as part of the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival and is waiting for a release sometime later this year.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.