Despite leaving writer-director Kate Dolan’s feature debut You Are Not My Mother with a lot more questions than answers, I don’t think that reality is necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps if better-versed in Irish lore I’d be more familiar with the supernatural elements at play and, thus, less in the dark about the unspoken details the film doesn’t seem to realize it might need to share for better understanding. But it’s not as though knowing would add much beyond context. And if that’s all that’s missing, are we really losing anything? Not when our ignorance helps augment the feeling of anxiety permeating throughout. Perhaps Dolan omitted those answers on purpose. We’re to know things are happening without being chaperoned through each secret.

This decision to distance herself from those answers also ensures the plotline’s metaphor for mental illness remains alive despite giving those earmarks a physical presence via the unknown. By keeping the possibility of changelings, ghosts, and fairies ambiguous enough to be dismissed as instinct or fever dream, we can process what happens with a more grounded approach—we don’t need that extra stuff to appreciate the struggles this family faces. Char (Hazel Doupe) is a gifted student who skipped a grade only to find herself isolated and bullied by older teens who treat her like a pariah. And those circumstances only devolve more when she’s constantly late because her grandmother (Ingrid Craigie’s Rita) is unreliable (age) and her mother (Carolyn Bracken’s Angela) practically non-existent (depression).

Who, then, does Char have to lean on when Angela doesn’t come home one day? It’s a harrowing experience, considering the actions and dialogue that led up to her disappearance. Her family must think the worst: suicide. Char’s uncle Aaron (Paul Reid) arrives to help with the basics, like filling an empty fridge, but police have their hands tied what with Halloween increasing petty crimes. That Angela suddenly returns later that night should be a weight off their shoulders, yet everything feels a bit askew. The forlorn woman who could barely leave her bed is inexplicably smiling in the kitchen, cooking dinner. While Char is obviously skeptical—this version of her mother has been gone for years—Rita is downright suspicious. Something is wrong.

It’s here where revelations about the past come flooding into view. Sometimes it’s neighbors alluding to danger (Jordanne Jones’ Suzanne turns from aggressor into sympathizer upon realizing she and Char aren’t that different, but the possibility of friendship leads her father to say, “I don’t want you talking to that girl”). Other times have people shedding light on rumors that take us back to Dolan’s sinister prologue of a baby being rolled into the forest and set on fire within a ritualized circle. The town has whispered about Rita and Angela for years; this latest mishap only causes more distance. They all want to close their eyes while Char is finally pushed into opening hers wider than ever.

Is the new Angela a product of her medication? Perhaps. Why is Rita so against her then? There’s a chasm of mistrust separating mother and daughter—not necessarily unwarranted. The question is thus about who Char and, by extension, we should trust more. Is Angela’s desire to take her teen on a vacation alone a means to extricate themselves from Rita? Or is it a ploy to steal Char from the confines of the one place that’s protecting her? Dolan gives enough to believe both could be true until finally showing a glimpse of the true danger’s face. Even then, however, it’s impossible to know for certain. We often find ourselves trapped by scenarios in which our hope leads us astray. Hearts are easily fooled.

Dolan delivers some legitimate scares as she progresses towards a climax in fire set to mirror the beginning. A chase scene through the house on all fours is sufficiently creepy, as well as its seemingly inauspicious origins in Angela’s dancing to a record-turning to floor-pounding screams. Add a few abrupt transitions to elicit audience jumps and effective make-up turning flesh into goo and there’s a lot to like on the genre front as You Are Not My Mother‘s psychological underpinnings flirt with straight horror trappings. It’s all a testament to Bracken’s performance, too: she puts 100% of herself into the role, whether steely-eyed determination behind the wheel, seething rage opposite Craigie at the dinner table, or scared pleas for her daughter’s forgiveness.

And while Bracken helps create the nightmarish mood, Doupe is left to suffer its wrath and humanize the ordeal by struggling to readily believe the unfathomable. It’s one thing to be frustrated that she’s taking care of the woman who should care for her; it’s completely different to wonder if that woman still exists despite being in the same room. Doppelgangers, mysticism, and the occult turn young Char’s life upside down in ways she couldn’t have fathomed, yet everyone around her can’t help assuming it to be true via hearsay. We’re all haunted by the ghosts of our ancestors in one way or another. The past forever influences our present by forcing us to confront the incongruous disparity with a leap of faith—dark or otherwise.

You Are Not My Mother played the Toronto International Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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