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‘You Are Not My Mother’ Film Review: Striking Irish Horror Film Mines Fear in Family Anxiety

There’s a slow burn that pays off in writer-director Kate Dolan’s feature debut

There is a unique variety of dread known only to horror fans. It is not the fear that an ominous foreshadowing will lead to something terrifying. It is the fear that, this time, it won’t.

With every slow-burn horror story there comes attached a creeping anxiety that it might ultimately fizzle, instead of bursting aflame.

Films like writer-director Kate Dolan’s “You Are Not My Mother” may outwardly project a tale of looming supernatural dread, but in this tale of a young teenager whose mentally-ill mother behaves monstrously, and whose grandmother may or may not be the cause, equally great is the anxiety that Dolan’s film won’t be able to make it all come together in the end. It’s a lot to ask of “You Are Not My Mother,” that it operate as both a scary supernatural thriller and a meaningful allegory for mental illness. To achieve only one would diminish the other.

Ordinarily a critic might try to preserve the mystique of a film like “You Are Not My Mother” and let the audience discover the horrifying truths for themselves. But although it would be rude to reveal the machinations of the film’s uncomplicated but effective and surprising plot, it will no doubt be a relief to reveal that Dolan’s feature film debut effectively combines real and imaginary horrors. It really does end with a modest but frightening bang.

“You Are Not My Mother” stars Hazel Doupe as Char, a teenage girl in Ireland whose mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) has severe depression and frequently cannot leave her bedroom. When forced to drive Char to school one day, she nearly kills them both by driving their car into a horse. Narrowly averting disaster, Angela tells her daughter, “I can’t do this anymore,” and she watches Char march off, alone.

Char contends with no shortage of school bullies, no friends to speak of, and the alienation of having skipped a grade, so when she walks home and finds her mother’s car abandoned, it’s not like she was already having a good day. And when Angela comes home, mysteriously, as though nothing happened, Char has serious questions that go unanswered but cryptically hinted at by her grandmother, Rita (Ingrid Craigie, “7 Days in Entebbe”), who gives her a mysterious ball of twigs and leaves for Char’s, shall we say, “protection.”

For much of “You Are Not My Mother,” we know little more than Char does about her increasingly awful circumstances. The house is full of unspoken terrors; the family has secrets involving the supernatural and the superstitious. Is Angela a victim of terrible abuse, lashing out at the imprisonment that is a neglectful family? Is Rita saving Char from a traumatic revelation about her parentage? And when pondering these questions we have to wonder: Is the movie’s title a major spoiler?

Dolan and her production-design team make Char’s house feel like the waiting room to get into hell, replete with furniture that should be pleasant yet offers no comfort, and full of lightbulbs that provide no visual warmth, if they even work at all. Cinematographer Narayan Van Maele carefully balances the drab, unwelcoming world outside of Char’s home with the deeply unpleasant low lighting inside of it. There’s no escape for our protagonist. She’s trapped inside and, when she can get out, she’s forced back in by bullies and suspicious neighbors.

Hazel Doupe is an ideal actor for a film like “You Are Not My Mother,” carrying heavy burdens and realistically struggling to make them appear light. Paired with Carolyn Bracken, whose performance has to walk a razor-thin line betwixt plausible mental illness and, possibly, otherworldly evil, Doupe masterfully conveys that awful mix of strength and fear that anyone from a troubled home can, sadly, recognize.

“You Are Not My Mother” is steeped in Irish folklore and, increasingly, Halloween atmosphere. What revelations do come about what’s actually happening at Char’s house — or, just as likely, what her family thinks is happening — have a meaningful connection with her personal and cultural past. That Dolan is able to convey all that mythology without a rigorous exposition dump is a testament to her assured storytelling and to John Cutler’s efficient, eerie editing.

With striking scares, moody atmosphere, and impressive performances, “You Are Not My Mother” gradually reveals itself to be a wicked, wicked work of horror, with perhaps only a few unanswered questions holding it back from true greatness. The real-life anxieties the film evokes connect tidily with the supernatural elements, even if, perhaps, a little too much feels resolved at the end. Maybe that’s where the film finally disconnects from reality or, perhaps, just perhaps, the characters — whoever survives and whatever is left of them, to paraphrase a classic horror-movie poster — deserve what they get.

“You Are Not My Mother” opens Friday in U.S. theaters and on-demand.