The new Irish horror movie you are not my mother, which originally premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, is a multifaceted work of existential dread. The first feature from the writer-director Kate Dolan is a story of family, paganism and what happens when we lose those we love. Specifically, it’s very curious how we can lose them not to death, at least not right away, but to the horrors of their own minds. It’s also a film that addresses the collective societal failure that abandons those facing a mental health crisis when they need it most. It’s about passing on the responsibility, making sure that the challenges of caring for them fall on their loved ones to take on themselves. In the case of this film, it’s about how a child must try to grow up while trying to save his mother from her decline that threatens to consume her.
The Char Child (Hazelnut Doupe), has more than her share of problems she faces, especially at school where she faces relentless bullying. This is compounded by the fact that his mother Angela (Caroline Bracken) is unable to care for herself or her daughter. An early scene of a car ride to school sees Char trying to ask his mother nicely if she can buy some food from the store so they have something to eat at home. It becomes clear that the daughter cares about her mother while trying to advocate for her needs. Angela seems almost entirely disconnected from the conversation and nearly drags them into a car accident which is only averted by Char turning the wheel at the last second to avoid disaster. This is just the beginning of how dark things are starting to get.
The triggering incident is when Angela goes missing and the family is unable to find her. His brother Aaron (Paul Reid), tries to talk to the police and desperately convinces them to help. However, the officer who visits their home tells them that there is nothing she is able to do or plans to do. This is the first hint we get of the central theme of societal abandonment and how those left behind can slip through the cracks when our institutions fail. When Angela finally returns home, she initially seems cheerful, though this quickly turns out to be a facade and something is seriously wrong. She wanders through the night and seems almost possessed, struck by something supernatural that cannot be shaken no matter how much her daughter begs her. A particularly disturbing scene where she begins to dance maniacally before getting hurt and where Char establishes the stakes.
The strength of the film lies not only in these effective scenes, but in the larger thematic significance. As it reveals the growing weight placed on Char and how she must bear the brunt of the challenges of caring for her mother with minimal resources, we realize how much her individual struggle is the result of collective failure. If there had been some sort of more robust societal response or mental support system in place, something in real life Ireland is facing a crisis itself, so mother and daughter wouldn’t would not have had to face such pain alone. Instead, failure to support those most in need threatens to deprive a child of both their mother and their childhood. Whether it’s getting his mom’s medicine while his uncle is at work, or untrained crisis intervention when things go wrong, that’s too much to ask of any one person. It is in the real horror of our failing institutions that the face of supernatural fear is all the more impactful. It painstakingly shows how, when we decide to leave behind those who need help the most, it falls to their loved ones to pick up the pieces.
With all of this in mind, it’s worth acknowledging a well-understood counter-argument and frustration with horror movies as metaphors. Many detractors point out that these films focus on surface trauma without fully engaging with it beyond the surface-level scares and initial premise. While these do exist and are the ones whose frustration I share, that thankfully doesn’t happen here. Instead, you are not my mother is a brilliant example of how to do this story well by packing both emotional subtlety and a deeper excavation of the pain facing the people at its center. You learn about their lives alongside how they reveal, without preaching or drawing attention to themselves, how there is a larger societal failure that is letting them down. It doesn’t tell you that in big, elongated monologues, but in the quiet scenes where Char is left alone to figure out how to save her mother. It is through his struggles and the growing sense of dread that you begin to understand the terrible reality of his all-too-real situation.
Without taking away from the lasting impact the film finds in its conclusion, it doesn’t provide so many definitive answers even as it finds a tentative peace. However, while it offers a small glimpse of hope, it still explains how fragile things remain for the family who remain largely on their own. Their existence, like many others trying to live with mental health issues, is made tenuous and precarious precisely because society has determined that they are not a priority. Their suffering and pain are allowed to happen, making it unlikely that their situation will improve anytime soon. Even as Char begins to see a ritual as a way out for her and her mother, the fact hangs over the story that no such mechanism exists in our world. Instead, those who should be helped by the systems and structures we put in place must find a way to survive on their own. This dark reality hovers perpetually You are not my mother, ensuring it’s the type of horror that will always cut deep in what it reveals about our persistent failures that show no signs of improving.
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