Hazel Doupe plays Charlotte (shortened to “Char” by everyone, a metaphorical name if ever there was one), a cowed and intimidated teenage girl, living in a housing estate outside of Dublin. Char is a slim girl, with huge alert eyes and a red birthmark on her right cheek, the cause of mockery from fellow students, all of whom are girls. Girls are terrifying. But family is even more so. Char lives with her nearly-disabled grandmother (Ingrid Craigie), who seems never to leave the house, and her depressive mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken), who can barely get out of bed. Something’s very wrong in this dusty musty household, the secrets shrieking louder than any language could.
The film starts with a terrifying mysterious prologue. A baby carriage holding a shrieking baby stands in the middle of a dark road. Why is this baby left alone in the street? A woman (Craigie) approaches and rolls the carriage into the woods, where she removes the baby from the carriage, places her in the dirt, and lights a ring of fire around her. The baby wails, the heat flickering far too close, charring (get it?) the ground around the child. None of this is explained until nearly the end of “You Are Not My Mother,” and it looms over the rest of the film.
Char is a teenager, but she is the responsible one in the household, scolding her mother about there being no food in the house, begging her to get out of bed and give her a ride to school when she misses the bus. School is no better, although a kindly teacher (Jade Jordan) takes an interest in Char. One morning Angela disappears, seemingly vanishing into thin air. When she returns home a few days later, she is very different. She’s sometimes light-hearted, but she can turn on a dime. She is often quite frightening. Char has been traumatized by years of neglect, and tiptoes around the house, keeping her distance. The grandmother knows more than she’s saying. “You Are Not My Mother” has some plot, but it’s mostly the portrait of the claustrophobia of family secrets, particularly for Char who has no idea what’s going on, and slowly comes to understand that everyone has been keeping something from her, something to do with her. Her entire life has been built on fabrications and half-truths.