You Are Not My Mother


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Hazel Doupe in You Are Not My Mother
"There’s a lot going on here but first time feature director Kate Dolan weaves all her narrative threads together seamlessly." | Photo: Signature Entertainment

It’s night-time in an Irish housing estate edged by woodland. A pushchair sits alone at the end of a quiet road, its small passenger unaware that anything is wrong. By the time the camera turns and we see Rita (Ingrid Cragie) standing nearby, most of us will already be feeling unsettled. And that’s before Rita takes the baby into the woods, consults an obscure manuscript, and starts building a fire.

Flash forward some 15 years and Rita is still living in one of those small red brick houses, with her daughter Angela (Carolyn Bracken) and granddaughter Char (Hazel Doupe). She’s not as fit as she used to be and has a bad foot, but she often takes care of Char, all the same, because Angela is mentally ill. It’s not immediately clear what the problem is but she struggles to get out of bed and perform basic tasks. When she’s put under pressure, things can easily go wrong. This is difficult and embarrassing for Char, who is ridiculed by her peers because of it. “That family’s always been tapped,” warns the father of her schoolmate Suzanne (an excellent Jordanne Jones), but there’s something about the aggressiveness with which he warns his daughter to stay away from them that seems out of the ordinary.

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As most teenagers would, Suzanne responds to this by becoming intrigued. Soon she and Char have struck up a friendship. All is not well, however, with Char’s mother going missing and then, just as mysteriously, turning up again. It’s not the first time it has happened but still, Rita is worried. She has cause to be, and she knows that the time has come when she will have to start sharing secrets with her granddaughter – things which could drive her away, but which might be the only way to keep her safe.

There’s a lot going on here but first time feature director Kate Dolan weaves all her narrative threads together seamlessly, crafting a tale in which otherworldly phenomena and psychiatry are not so much alternative explanations for Angela’s condition as different languages through which it might be described. Either way, she seems alien to Char at times, and that’s an experience compounded by the girl’s coming of age, her natural process of breaking away and establishing an independent identity. This involves taking on adult responsibilities, again with more than one aspect to them, and learning to accept that she’s a victim of prejudice and that rather than just letting herself get hurt, she’s going to need to deal with it.

There are superb performances all round here and the interactions between the teenagers are particularly impressive, with a real freshness about them. We see the city through their eyes, with all those back alleys, easily scaled walls and patches of waste ground where young people take refuge from a world which is always trying to constrain them or shoo them along. Dolan finds a natural marriage between the outsider status of these places and the folklore still very much present in the urban environment. Char moves through a series of overlapping cities and cultures, absorbing pagan customs which have never died out, experiencing sacred spaces both beautiful and terrible. Again, the mundane world and the mystical one are not opposites but aspects of the same thing.

Where older films on Irish folklore have tended to romanticise it, You Are Not My Mother belongs to a new generation of works which speak to older and more deeply rooted traditions clear about the threat posed by the other. It’s not so much a Christianised notion of evil which haunts this film, but something more primal, more akin to the threat posed by a predator. Individuals act according to their nature. One of the teenage characters serves as a reminder that human nature can be dangerous too. Meanwhile, Rita uses what she can of the old lore to protect her family and drive away the threat – if she can tell the difference.

Heartbreaking in places, spine-shudderingly creepy in others, You Are Not My Mother finds both terror and inspiration in the awareness that the world might be bigger and stranger than expected.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2022
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You Are Not My Mother packshot
In a North Dublin housing estate Char's mother goes missing. When she returns, Char is determined to uncover the truth of her disappearance and unearth the dark secrets of her family.
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Director: Kate Dolan

Writer: Kate Dolan

Starring: Hazel Doupe, Paul Reid, Carolyn Bracken, Ingrid Craigie, Jordanne Jones

Year: 2021

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: Ireland


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