By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Hazel Doupe, Carolyn Bracken and Ingrid Craigie
Written and directed by Kate Dolan
There’s something about the prospect of our sophisticated modern lives colliding, wittingly or otherwise, with ancient forces that remains deeply unsettling to us. It’s almost embarrassingly paradoxical, really: For all our hubris and ethnocentrism—for all the technology and bright, shiny lights—the same shadows trail and haunt us.
And so, much like William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty extrapolating what might come to pass if Pazuzu took a vacation from his longterm haunt of Iraq to wreak havoc at a well-to-do Georgetown townhouse, Irish writer/director Kate Dolan rather brilliantly and elegantly scores a similar direct psychological and philosophical hit with YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER. Her film transports us to her homeland for an affecting-by-way-of-terrifying coming-of-age story set in the birthplace of Samhain/Halloween on…Samhain/Halloween.
Think growing up while navigating dysfunctional family and social dynamics is hard? Try doing it with well-disguised changelings and faerie doppelgangers mischievously inserting themselves into the process! The setup: Young Char (Hazel Doupe) is already struggling with multifront teen tribulation when her withdrawn, perhaps sickly mother (Carolyn Bracken) goes from emotionally ghosting her to physically disappearing altogether. Well, for a day, anyway. But it is a an extremely consequential and mysterious 24 hours. Because when the woman returns, there is something very off and very sinister about her. And though the entire family can sense something is off, it is Char, alas, who will bear the brunt of her mom’s ever-upward-ratcheting weirdness and snarling otherworldliness.
Though abandoned in multiple very real senses and herself not yet fully actualized or self-empowered, it is left to Char to both survive and save her mother–to explore those generational shadows where angels and humanity fear to tread. Oh yeah, and the whole shebang is coming to a climax on…well, you know, that 2,000-year-old Celtic gala we turned into candy corn and carved pumpkins.
What follows is a very deep, perfectly paced, deftly balanced mix of nuance and kineticism, of the ordinary and the esoteric, of horror and beauty. It’s buoyed by Dolan’s beguiling directorial skills—seriously, YOU ARE NOT MY MOTHER would be impressive even if it weren’t her debut feature—as well as highly naturalistic and believable performances by a cast who truly ground this increasingly surrealistic tale in the ways it needed to be grounded…and allow it to float toward more transcendent pastures at appropriate moments. In addition to Doupe and Bracken, the ensemble includes Ingrid Craigie in a powerful turn as the tortured grandmother, a fiery Jade Jordan as a teacher who wants to intercede yet is not privy to the depths of Char’s challenges, Katie White as an unexpected friend Char desperately wants to hold onto despite the inexplicable chaos swirling and Paul Reid as an uncle who feels obligated to be protector in a situation beyond his protective abilities. And shout-out to cinematographer Narayan Van Maele, whose work here is deceptively immersive.
Here’s hoping the whole lot of them continue collaborating and introducing the rest of the world to this rich, fascinating-if-sometimes-ghastly vein of Irish folklore.