You Are Not My Mother (2021)

Quick synopsis: In a North Dublin housing estate, Char’s mother goes missing. When she returns, there’s something “different” about her.

I will always be a sucker for a slow-burn horror film. Don’t get me wrong, I adore a fast-paced slasher with blood from the outset. But there’s a weird sense of satisfaction I get from watching the closing section of a slow-burner, when everything comes together and the tension starts ramping up. This is one of those, it’s not the quickest film, not going to be one where you’re sitting there thrilled throughout. But it is one where you’ll be watching and enjoying. It’s the cinematic equivalent of when you read a book by the fire, and you’re so hooked that you finish the whole book in one night. It’s genuinely a compelling watch. It’s set in Ireland, the quiet modern world providing a lovingly simple backdrop to the haunting narrative. That’s the best location for this story, I feel if it was in a large city it wouldn’t have the cosy familiarity that it needs to work. It would also require a different type of audio, you’d need the sound of the hustle and bustle of city life, so you couldn’t get the silence and the darkness that this needs for the narrative to breathe.

That’s the best way to talk about one of the possible downsides of this film, it is slow, and that won’t be for everyone. There are also some plot points which are started, but not really closed. I know that closure is unrealistic, but there are some things which feel like they’re forgotten. Trouble is, I’m not entirely sure how you could have closed them without disrupting the narrative. It’s really tricky, and really picky of me to point out. You also get the feeling that this might work better as a short, it does struggle to fill the length sometimes. There are also moments where characters don’t question things which they probably should, it feels like this is just because if they asked questions and investigated, the film would be over quicker.

This is Kate Dolan’s debut feature as both a writer and a director. She’s found success in her shorts, creating the award-winning Catcalls back in 2017. There’s been a lot of promising debuts over the last few years, particularly in horror, especially from female creators. Some have shown promise (Umma), some have shown potential but aren’t quite there yet (How To Deter A Robber), and some instantly get you into the creator (Censor). This is up there towards the higher quality, I won’t exactly rush out and have a NEED to watch everything she has done, but if I’m watching a trailer and I see the words “By Kate Dolan”, it will be the deciding factor about the film. She has a great talent at narrative misdirection, but then making it seem like the ending was the only possible way, almost like it’s mocking you for thinking one thing was true. Her directing is pretty much spot on too. She knows when to inject suspense into a scene, and when to have it play like a drama. The biggest compliment I can give her as a director is it’s a horror movie that doesn’t feel like a horror movie. That’s a weird point I know, so I’ll just explain it. Often things in horror movies only happen because they’re horror movies: there are people just walking around a house while creepy music plays and they’re terrified. But if you think of it from their reality, they don’t hear the music, so what are they scared of? It makes you very aware you’re watching a movie. This plays out like a drama, so when the horror moments happen, the grounding in reality that the film has established means the horror feels real. These aren’t characters in a horror movie, these are real characters who are living, and are having a horror movie happen to them.

Her work is aided by the performances, the central 3 (Ingrid Craigle, Hazel Doupe, and Carolyn Bracken) work so well together that I could watch a film that’s just the three of them in a room talking for 90 minutes. Carolyn deserves special mention purely because of how physically demanding her role as the mother (and “mother”) is. She technically plays two roles and carries herself differently in both. There’s one scene in particular where she shines and is a great example of her talent. She’s dancing around the room, very graceful and elegant. But then it gets weird, and the dancing has a strange, almost violent energy to it. It is still elegant, but it’s a violent elegance that is beautiful to watch but also terrifying.

That’s how I sum up this film: terrifying elegance. The biggest disappointment is that it’s on Netflix and I didn’t get to see it at the cinema.

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