Dublin filmmaker Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, is the story of Char (Hazel Doupe), a teenager living in a North Dublin housing estate, whose mother, Angela (Carolyn Bracken), mysteriously disappears and returns soon after, seemingly safe. However, as her mother begins to change in sinister ways, Char must uncover the truth, no matter how terrifying, and unearth the dark secrets in her family’s past.
Irish horror has taken on a new (or arguably first) life in recent years and, as it stands, the genre here seems to have peaked with You Are Not My Mother. This is the debut feature from writer/director Dolan, whom horror fans may be familiar with – her short film Catcalls (2017) was added to the Shudder streaming service in 2020.
To call this a confident and incredibly assured debut feature would be accurate, but possibly reductive. This would feel equally impressive and assured as a sophomore, fifth, or even a tenth feature. You Are Not My Mother shows immense directorial talent. It’s incredibly grounded and immersive, feeling authentically located in a real Dublin, without ever feeling like a gimmicky “Dublin movie”, drawing unnecessary attention to its Irish locale, which seems to be a recurring trend in independent Irish cinema.
The urban setting and cinematography adds a realism and bleakness to proceedings and put a unique spin on the folkloric elements of the picture. This draws on Irish folklore in fresh and interesting ways, unlike recent works like The Hallow, or The Hole In The Ground from 2019. Dolan also puts a fresh twist on the folk horror genre which has boomed in the last several years thanks to the work of filmmakers like Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, or releases by distributors and services like Severin Films and Shudder.
Despite not having the rural setting or photography typical to that subgenre, this feels like an authentic and masterful addition. It’s a great urban folk horror which never feels like an attempt at simply transplanting a folk horror to an urban setting, while also balancing genres perfectly – working as a family drama and intense psychological horror. This skillful filmmaking is only exemplified by the extra layer of fantastic sound design and music, the likely standout being the juxtaposed use of Joe Dolan’s ‘You’re Such a Good Looking Woman’ in one of the most truly terrifying scenes here.
As a writer, Dolan’s work is just as solid. Although it’s almost cliché to say at this point: the oft repeated criteria for a truly great horror film is how well the picture works when the horror is removed entirely – and this is no exception to the rule! As well as a truly unsettling horror, this is a profound, touching, affecting and, most importantly, real film about family strife, mental illness and the havoc this can wreak on a family unit, as well as touching on teenage isolation, bullying and grief.
The third aspect of the trifecta of insane talent in You Are Not My Mother are the terrific lead performances by Doupe, portraying Char’s intense emotions like anguish, exasperation and true terror subtly and convincingly, and Bracken, who is in equal parts truly sympathetic and truly terrifying as Angela.
You Are Not My Mother will someday be remembered as one of the greatest genre debuts of the century up to this point, and if it isn’t, it damn well should be! It shows not just a glimmer, but a radiating burst of hope for the future of Irish independent cinema, Irish horror cinema, and Irish film helmed by women. Kate Dolan is one to watch, and I for one am on the edge of my seat waiting to see what she does next.