You Are Not My Mother opens on a chilling tableau. A baby stroller sits alone, abandoned on the street, in the middle of the night -- only to be spirited away into the woods and toward a burning fire.
This haunting image perfectly sets the stage for all that follows, as the film centers on a teen girl named Char (Hazel Doupe), who, although not left in the middle of a street on a chilly Dublin night, is still adrift in her life. Having been moved up a grade due to her intellect, she has no social connection with her older classmates, who never miss a chance to torture her. Things are even more precarious at home. Her mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) is largely absent due to her mental health struggles, and her father is absent, period. There is no respite, just gray skies, both literal and metaphorical, hanging too tightly overhead.
When Char's mother goes missing, only to return without explanation and a new, uncharacteristically upbeat attitude, it could be interpreted as a sign of changing luck for the family -- but this is a horror film.
Instead, Angela's newly chipper veneer begins to crack and horror, steeped in the storied and chilling folk traditions of Ireland, begins to seep through her carefully crafted mask.
Char watches on wide-eyed with terror -- as does the audience -- as the woman she once knew begins to disappear and in her place is a woman who is a stranger and perhaps no longer human at all.
When viewed from a literal perspective, the film pulls from local folkloric tradition, something that Dolan tells The Advocate remains present today in the Irish psyche. "Folklore really permeates into Irish culture," she says. "All the stories are told as if they're real, and it has a real-world impact. People will avoid fairy rings or fairy mounds -- and there was a motorway they built around a certain area, just outside of Dublin, because it had a fairy mound. And that was only like 10 years ago." As she says, while Irish people mostly laugh off their superstition, there remains a small part of them that can't help but ask: what if it's true?
That tension between modernity and myth is reflected both in Char and her grandmother's suspicions about Angela, as well as how Char's own community mistrustfully sets her apart as an outsider.
While the queerness inherent in You Are Not My Mother is subtextual, it's also woven throughout the film, particularly in its lead. "There's definitely a lot of me in Char. You kind of put a lot of yourself, I think, in your first movie," Dolan says, explaining that she pulled from her own experiences in a "fairly rough" all-girls catholic school. Her tactic for not becoming the target of bullies, or having her queerness discovered, was to make herself as small and invisible as possible, a tactic Char tries to employ throughout the film.
"I was obviously queer growing up -- and still am now, haven't changed," she laughs. "I think in that environment ... you couldn't be yourself in front of them. The management of the school is also really conservative. I remember once hugging my friend at the car door, and our teacher came over and said, 'Separate your bodies, don't do that.'"
The film's queerness, however, is most apparent in the tension and dynamic between Char and her classmate Suzanne, whose relationship evolves throughout the course of the film. Although not quite overtly romantically, it's a budding relationship that queer people will likely recognize from their earliest romantic connections. Again, much of this comes from the film simply being a product of Dolan's own creative imagination. "When we were writing the script, the scene between Suzanne and Char where they're talking, I remember the script editor said to me, 'OK, what's going on between these girls?' And I was like, 'What do you mean, what's going on?'" she recalls, realizing belatedly that she'd indeed written two gay characters.
"I kind of embedded that into their characters... I feel like Suzanne, she knows she's gay. But she's in an environment where she can't really express that... and then Char, I feel like, doesn't know herself at all yet. But definitely, there's something there that's not completely heteronormative."
Her script editor wasn't the only one who raised an eyebrow over the connection between Char and Suzanne. Dolan says she intended to talk to the actors (Doupe and Jordanne Jones who plays Suzanne) about it during prep, but they'd already both caught on. "They're both queer as well. So they were like, 'what's going on?' I explained to them, but then they really brought that [to] any performance they had together in a scene," she recalls.
Dolan ultimately says of the subtext "it's kind of just part and parcel. I'm obviously queer. There were other queer people involved in the cast, and some of the crew as well. So yeah, I think it kind of just bleeds in. Everyone brings their own experience and flavor to it. And I think, yeah, it does then kind of have this little bit of a queer undertone running underneath."
You Are Not My Mother fits easily into the category of "elevated horror" (a hotly debated term in horror circles). A subgenre that focuses more on dramatic and thematic elements to deliver its scares, rather than imploying gore or jumpscares. This film uses those tools to great and poignant effect.
Case in point, there's another equally impactful and secular way to read the film, and that's as an allegory for the fear and sense of powerlessness that young people can feel growing up with a parent who suffers from a mental illness.
Exploring the subject of mental illness is hardly a rarity in the horror genre, but a film that does so with subtlety and gentleness is, and You Are Not My Mother succeeds on this front. That's in part because the seed of the idea that sparked its creation is one that filled Dolan with both horror and empathy.
"I always was really intrigued by folklore stories," says Dolan. "In Irish folklore, the last known changeling was in 1895. It was a woman called Bridget Cleary, and she was a grown woman but her husband murdered her by burning her in their fire -- fire is seen as the cleansing thing that rids the changeling out of your body." That story never left Dolan's mind, and she found herself returning to it time and time again, trying to puzzle through what really had been going on there.
Dolan also knew she had to tread carefully with the character of Angela, who presents as both mentally ill in addition to going through a monstrous transformation. If not handled subtly, it could be easy for audiences to reach a conclusion she was never trying to convey. "In horror movies particularly, mental illness is treated as kind of a throwaway, like, 'And they were crazy,' she explains, sharing: "I've had people in my life who have suffered from mental health problems, [so] it was important to me that it's not 'you're not just saying she's bad because she's mentally ill.' She's a person [who's] nuanced and complex, [while at the same time for] a child, seeing that it is very scary."
This all connects to Dolan's larger goal of telling a story about how trauma and pain can be passed down. "I wanted to make a film about inherited trauma in a family and how somebody's coming of age, things that happened in the past [in] your family often will come back on you, even if you kind of weren't a part of it, or you weren't really there for it," she says. "The two ideas started to kind of just meld together really well, because [of], I think, this idea that in our past in Irish history we have these traumas that come back as a culture."
"I really wanted to capture three different generations of women, particularly Irish women, because I think women in Ireland have had a very difficult time of it under the Catholic patriarchal rule of Ireland," Doland adds.
It's a lot to try and explore in a single film, and yet You Are Not My Mother successfully delivers on its emotional notes -- while offering plenty of chills along the way. It's an eerie, unsettling tale that subtly cranks up your nervous system while simultaneously tap dancing on your emotions. In other words, it's an excellent showcase of director Kate Dolan's deft and subtle hand as both director and screenwriter of the film. That's doubly impressive because it marks the Irish filmmaker's first feature film, and makes it clear from the outset that she's one to watch. Dolan is already one of the most intriguing and promising emerging voices in a field rich with exciting new filmmakers.
Next up for Dolan is a "queer coming-of-age werewolf movie," that she has had in the works for years. "It's a kind of camp like Lost Boys. That's kind of a vibe. And then the other one is in its very early stages. So we'll see what horror is definitely in the future ahead of me," she teases. If You Are Not My Mother is any indication, the future is bright -- or rather perhaps dark is more fitting -- for this out Irish filmmaker.
You Are Not My Mother is available now on video on demand. Watch the trailer below.