By David Dent
Kate Dolan’s assured but never over confident debut feature dances in and out of the folk h*rror genre, presenting us with a claustrophobic, intergenerational contemporary story focused on three female characters; schoolgirl Char (Hazel Doupe), her mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) and Angela’s ma Rita (Ingrid Craigie).
Char uneasily balances a difficult domestic situation, coping with ailing granny and a mum with – we initially believe – acute mental health issues, living on a housing estate in Ireland: and her school life, where she covers up what’s happening at home. Char is bright enough to have skipped up a year, and her own abilities make her a freak in the eyes of the other girls at school, particularly a bunch of tough girls.
In the days leading up to Halloween (the mention of Samhain roots the core of the story in the magic of the old ways) events at home fairly quickly gather pace: Angela goes missing after taking Char to school, her car found abandoned in a field; “I can’t do this anymore”, Angela enigmatically tells her. Sometime later a greatly changed Angela returns; medication improves her listlessness, but the highs and lows of her personality become disconcerting, and the tensions increase between Rita and her daughter.
But there’s something going on outside of these domestic issues; a prologue has already signalled that the household is steeped in old magic, Rita fashions charms made out of sticks and foliage for protection, and there are incremental suggestions that Angela’s condition has a supernatural explanation. In one scene the father of the school bully warns his daughter to stay away from Char and her family. Dolan cleverly reveals these small details slowly, and some, witnessed by Char, are made more frightening both because of them being seen through a young girl’s eyes and also witnessed in a prosaic setting.
While some of the story strands may wander a little, Dolan has created a film of incredible atmosphere with three amazing central performances from Bracken, Craigie and particularly Doupe; she’s the absolute centre of the film, conveying her fears as powerfully through her face as the words she speaks. I also really liked the development of Char’s character during her encounters with the school bullies; the film is equally made by the small incidents as well as the big shocks. Excellent.
You Are Not My Mother is now streaming on Shudder.