‘You Are Not My Mother’ Is a Fresh Take on the Folk Horror Genre
A child in a stroller at the end of a North Dublin street is taken deep into adjoining woods, placed in a nest of dry twigs and leaves, and set on fire in the opening minutes of You Are Not My Mother. It’s an audacious pre-credit sequence from director/writer Kate Dolan’s folk horror tale that sets a somber tone of reflective terror that envelops three generations of Irish women haunted by a changeling.
“I feel like Irish folklore has been used in film and TV somewhat,” Dolan has said, “but whenever I saw it depicted, it didn’t really capture what I felt when I read the stories. It felt kind of twee in a way, or it didn’t feel dark enough. A lot of the stories in our folk history are really dark. There are no happy endings, I don’t think, in any of the stories, really.”
Darkness is built into the bones of Dolan’s story. After that credit sequence — which we don’t find out was set in the past until two-thirds of the film is over — we’re introduced to high schooler Char (Hazel Doupe); her grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie), the woman responsible for the baby on the bonfire; and her depressive mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken).
Having missed the bus for school, Char asks her grandma if she can drive her to school, but she is tasked with getting her mother, who has been struggling with mental illness, to get out of the house and be responsible for her daughter’s transportation. Angela’s distracted on the drive, barely aware of her surroundings, and Char, worried about her mother yet more embarrassed by her behavior, asks to get dropped off a block away from the high school. When Char leaves school after classes, the family car is in the middle of a field and Angela is missing.
She returns hours later, and it’s a testament to Bracken’s sensitive performance as Angela that it takes quite some time — for Char and the audience — to realize that there is something more going on with her than mental illness (her state of mind, throughout, is a smokescreen). Of course, Rita knows, because she’s had some experience with the mythical changeling — that baby at the beginning was an offering to the spirits, though the child, as we learn, was not about to go quietly.
Family secrets are always toxic, and a spirit demon that likes to body jump amongst generations is a whopper, yet Dolan grounds the film in enough reality to make her plot both palpable and quietly menacing. She’s aided immeasurably by her cast — all three generations are evenly matched — but the film doesn’t gel as it should. The changeling itself — the idea of it, the manifestation of it — isn’t as powerful a metaphor for the ravages of mental illness as it should be nor, as it manifests in Angela, is it as scary as a horror fan might want.
Dolan’s take on the genre in You Are Not My Mother is fresh and exciting, in fits and starts. Its closest kin may be Ari Aster’s masterful Hereditary — another exploration of a supernatural being raining terror on a dysfunctional family. She doesn’t quite pull it off, but her ambition is laudable.