Beginning with one of the most harrowing scenes in recent memory, writer/director Kate Dolan’s Halloween-set Irish horror outing You Are Not My Mother serves up traditional European folklore in a modern urban setting. The result is one of the most thrilling, eerie cinematic experiences of this year. High-school student Char (Hazel Doupe) reluctantly accepts a ride to school from her seemingly depressed mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken), who almost drives the car straight into a horse. Angela disappears later that day but returns in a few days; however, she now seems to be in lighter moods, more active, and more engaged regarding spending time with Char. At first the bullied teen seems cautiously optimistic about her mother’s new behavior, but soon Angela begins displaying increasingly disturbing bearings. Char’s grandmother Rita (Ingrid Craigie), who makes talismans for protection, warns Char about a supernatural presence behind Angela, but Char wants none of that because she has heard schoolmates and neighbors mock her family for being weird. Writer/director Kate Dolan uses Irish folklore involving changelings — essentially a type of fairy folk that has been left behind in place of a kidnapped human — and puts a current spin on the idea. Bracken’s all-in, emotionally raw and physically discomfiting performance is terrific. Doupe carries the lead role, though, and does so brilliantly as her character goes through a range of emotions while attempting to stay poker-faced in front of school classmates and bullies. Dolan invests You Are Not My Mother with an eldritch atmosphere and a near-constant sense of dread from the film’s opening frames. The family drama is immediate and relatable, as is Char’s confusion at home and awkwardness at school. The film instantly secured a place on my list of top 10 horror films of 2021.
Director Ruth Paxton’s mesmerizing chiller A Banquet is a stunning visual and aural experience, with extreme close-ups of food and the act of eating paving the way for a story about a young woman who suddenly refuses all food in the name of some large, mysterious reason. Holly (Sienna Guillory) is a widowed mother whose now-teenaged daughter Betsey (Jessica Alexander) witnessed the gruesome suicide of her terminally-ill father as Holly was helpless to save him. Holly is doing her best at keeping the family together, with youngest daughter Isabelle (Ruby Stokes) seemingly being the most well adjusted to their new situation. One night while attending a party, Betsey — who has recently been asked by a school counselor to consider her direction in life — wanders into a wooded area on the night of a blood-red moon and emerges no longer wanting or needing to eat. As the tension in the family that this causes continues to rise — despite Betsey otherwise seeming physically healthy and not losing any weight, ruling out anorexia — Holly’s manipulative, domineering mother June (Lindsay Duncan in an unsettling, scene-stealing performance) inserts herself into the proceedings, icily detached as opposed to Holly’s strong emotional investment, with Betsey enigmatically referring to an upcoming catastrophic event. A Banquet deals in familial horror, psychological horror, supernatural (in the mystical sense of that word) horror, and body horror; the focus is on ratcheting up a riveting, unnerving atmosphere rather than shocks or big scares. Paxton, working from a screenplay by Justin Bull, captures the drama between the three generations of women superbly, and her cast members all give top-notch performances. Alexander is hypnotic as a young woman who others feel is troubled though she feels she is experiencing a spiritual awakening, and Guillory captures every subtle nuance required of her as her character is run through an emotional wringer. A Banquet, from IFC Midnight, is heavy, heady stuff, and well worth seeking out.
You Are Not My Mother and A Banquet screen as part of Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) hybrid event September 9–18, 2021, with in-person cinema screenings in Toronto and digital screenings available to viewers across Canada. For more information, visit https://www.tiff.net/.