Unpopular opinion: Not enough movies start out with a newborn baby roasting on an open fire. What? I said it was an unpopular opinion, not that it should be a popular opinion. If y’all can’t handle that “hot” take, you’re going to really struggle with “You Are Not My Mother,” which has some super spicy takes on breeding.
Irish writer/director Kate Dolan has yet to get her own Wikipedia page but now has my full attention, and not just because it appears that she directed a video for a band named Bitch Falcon. Her debut feature film is an exercise in controlled mesmerization. Poking at themes that are literally centuries old with a fresh shillelagh, Dolan fully groks how often to let the simmering, slow-burning horror tea kettle squeak so it doesn’t boil over. As much about inherited mental illness as “the sins of the mother,” the film is the first to chisel its name into the blarney stone that is my “Best Films of 2022 List.” Get it? Because it’s Irish. Have I not made that clear?
Char (Hazel Doupe) is a bullied teen with a scarred face and the patience of a GD saint. Her gran (Ingrid Craigie) and uncle (Paul Reid) seem to be the regular kind of neglectful. Her mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), has got…a lot more going on… After dropping Char off at school, Angela briefly goes missing. When she comes back, things get weird. At first, the change seems positive. Char’s momma tries to whip up dinner and seems really into music! Then things get significantly less positive and significantly more “The human body isn’t meant to do those things, mom.”
Horror allegories are always graceless metaphors. What’s graceful here isn’t Dolan working through a parable for mental illness and intergenerational trauma. It’s the efficacy of every scene. Jump scares and CGI gore are horror’s empty calories, gluttonously consumed but fleeting in their satiation. With just the power of Bracken and Doupe’s acting, Dolan’s direction, and some A+ foley artist work, a living room dance scene in the middle of “You Are Not My Mother” will stick with me for literally ever. Those moments are everywhere in the film. A silent firework explosion inserted between a jump and a scare. A slowly pulled sheet that cuts to a reaction before the terror beneath. Quiet but propulsive, cliched but satisfyingly so, everything is elegantly understated.
Even the conclusion works. Resisting the urge to tie a bow on an obvious creepy fable is a skill some directors haven’t mastered despite decades of trying, am I right M. Night? “You Are Not My Mother” is gripping from its initial bit of baby burning to its last lingering lament. Rarely does a first-time writer/director display this degree of precision. Someone get this woman a three-picture deal, a dedicated fanbase, and a Wikipedia page. STAT.
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Carolyn Mauricette from View From the Dark says “Nolan kept it simple, getting a common folk tale right without reinventing the wheel.”
Michelle Swope at The Daily Dead says “Dolan is an excellent storyteller and along with the gloomy cinematography and fantastic performances from Doupe and Bracken, she creates the perfect atmosphere for a folk horror film that is rich in actual Irish folklore.”
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas at the Alliance of Women Film Journalists says “what makes ‘You Are Not My Mother’such compelling viewing is how it seeks to defamiliarize our moral and ideological expectations surrounding women and the broader concept of strength, challenging us to think in more complex ways about gender and power.”