The so-called “elevated” horror genre has lately been overrun with stories in which supernatural creepings function as a metaphor for psychological trauma and dysfunction. At first through-the-fingers glance, “You Are Not My Mother” appears to be following suit, centering as it does on an isolated teenage girl haunted by the unpredictable rhythms of her mother’s debilitating mental illness. But this pervasively eerie, emotionally acute debut from Irish writer-director Kate Dolan doesn’t trade in neat symbolism or pat explanations: Steeped in local folklore, it lets mythic and mind-based terrors exist side by side, allowing the viewer to interpret and believe what they will. This leeway comes at no cost, however, to its effective atmospherics, which sink into the bones like an unexpected twilight chill.
Now getting a limited theatrical run Stateside, Dolan’s film was a highlight of last year’s Midnight Madness selection at Toronto, though that label doesn’t really fit its sober, subtle pleasures. Notably slow-burning for a film that repeatedly plays on the sinister thrill of an Irish Halloween bonfire, “You Are Not My Mother” most closely recalls the simultaneously nerve-twisting and heart-tugging horror of Natalie Erika James’ equally impressive debut “Relic.” In both films, three generations of female family members are set adrift from each other by psychiatric trouble in their midst, though where James drew on the language of haunted-house cinema to articulate that disturbance, Dolan delves into older Celtic lore of changelings and malevolent faeries — strange, mossy magic possibly still floating through the gray, sodden geometry of Dublin suburbia.
A cryptic prologue — contextualized if not wholly explicated far later in proceedings — wastes no time in knotting the stomach, opening on the immediately unnerving image of an abandoned pushchair lit by a single streetlamp at witching hour, the infant inside crying for a minder who is nowhere to be seen. “Under the Skin” taught us that there are few more upsetting shots in cinema than a baby alone in a deserted space; when an unidentified figure takes the child and carries it into the woods, Dolan queasily ups the ante.
Cut to an ordinary morning in the life of Char (Hazel Doupe), who may or may not have dreamt the preceding scene, but either way, hasn’t woken into a comforting reality. Her unresponsive, mostly bedbound mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) is afflicted with what appears to be chronic depression, leaving her frail, distracted grandmother (Ingrid Craigie) in charge of the household. Having skipped a year at school due to her academic prowess, the meek, friendless Char is bullied by her older classmates, who repeat cruel, neighborhood-circulated gossip of a history of madness in her family.
When her mother disappears one morning, the beleaguered girl seems unsurprised. She’s more shaken, in fact, when Angela returns the next day in an unrecognizably improved mood, suddenly assuming the mothering duties she had long relinquished and bopping in the kitchen to Joe Dolan’s cheesy ’70s earworm “You’re Such a Good-Looking Woman” — repeated in the film as a tin-eared rejoinder to Char’s inner turmoil, and a soundtrack to Angela’s increasingly manic new personality (and physicality). Is she on a belated upswing, or is she someone else entirely?
Char’s superstitious grandmother — given to making creepy talismans from forest-floor scraps to ward off bad spirits — has her own ideas, initially waved aside by the teen. But “You Are Not My Mother” doesn’t take quite such a secular approach, inviting us to consider that Angela may be under the control of both her own mental illness and a violent, less diagnosable force. Whirling swiftly from a quivering state of near-catatonia to possessed, bone-snapping demonism, Bracken’s hair-trigger performance lends credence to multiple possibilities and potential delusions; it’s a tour de force ideally countered by the tightly controlled body language and aching, unsettled-in-her-skin vulnerability of the remarkable Doupe.
Dolan’s textured, cloud-covered filmmaking, meanwhile, vividly evokes both the drab, suffocating environs of Char’s suburban existed and the charged, changeable spirit realm possibly nested within it — fleetingly glimpsed as hellish flashes in smudgy mirrors, and teased by the looming black woods that encircle the family’s squat, pebble-dashed housing estate, and echoed by the discordant horns that dominate an arresting score by avant-garde composer Die Hexen.
Lauren Kelly’s excellent production design, fittingly, is a symphony of deadening browns and joyless florals: You can see why Angela and Char have wilted between these walls. But there’s more flickering contrast in Narayan van Maele’s lensing, which alternates dun realism with occasionally hyperreal lighting and composition, particularly when the pagan promise of fire is in the frame. It’s a suitable aesthetic for a coolly unsettling but also deep-feeling horror film, one that keeps the ordinary and the extraordinary in tense, tetchy balance throughout.