Writer-director Kate Dolan’s debut feature takes place in a North Dublin housing estate some time in the relatively recent past – the lack of mobile phones and the internet and the presence of a record player suggest the 1980s, though it’s possible this is just a stretch of the world where those things haven’t taken root (the unstressed multiracial community looks much more like Ireland now than then) and no one has bothered to redecorate in decades. Or it could be that the central character, teenager Char (Hazel Doupe), is just so focused on what’s wrong in her immediate surroundings that what goes on outside them doesn’t register. A very few moments in the film break with Char’s POV, often to shocking effect – a comment by the father of redeemable mean girl Suzanne (Jordanne Jones) shakes our sense of who exactly is dangerous in this neighbourhood. Doupe is centre screen, often tight-lipped or seething with worry and pain, throughout and gives an extraordinary performance, selling a story that treads a fine line between psychological realism and supernatural horror.
A disorienting prologue, in which a woman puts a baby inside a fairy circle and sets a ring of fire, hangs over the whole film, establishing that we’re not just trudging through a housing estate drama. Char, who has a scar (literally, she’s charred) from that early ritual, is quiet, studious and determined – at home, she has to chivvy her slacker mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken) to normal tasks like driving her to school and picking up groceries, while at school she’s picked on by a girl gang led by Suzanne, with backup from more extremely nasty piece of work Kelly (Katie White) and vacillating tagalong (a brilliantly written and played tiny role) Amanda (Florence Adebambo). Walking home after another bad day, Char finds her mother’s car abandoned. Her live-in uncle Aaron (Paul Reid) calls the police, who are little help – the family mount a search, which mostly serves to exacerbate Char’s troubles with Suzanne’s gang (Kelly burns one of the few photographs Char has of her mother, which she’s carrying for ‘have you seen this woman?’ purposes). Then Angela returns, perhaps in one of her ‘up’ phases, playing a charade of yellow-dressed mumsiness in the kitchen that involves cooking and wild dancing.
Like quite a few recent horror movies (The Babadook, Relic, Antlers), the underlying subject is living with a close relative who’s struggling with mental illness: Char’s mother presents as bipolar, though Angela’s own mother Rita (Ingrid Craigie) is convinced that she’s come back from her disappearing spell as a malign doppelganger out to get revenge for an earlier slight against the world of faerie (she sabotages the soup before anyone gets to sample it). As her situation vis-à-vis the potentially sympathetic Suzanne and the malicious Kelly changes, Char has to undertake a struggle to bring her mother back – or back to herself. It’s the run-up to Halloween, celebrated by a local bonfire that echoes the ritual of the prologue, and ancient rites are performed in a desperate modern context. I sometimes find films which foreground the subtext naggingly unsatisfying – yes, we know the supernatural is a metaphor but the subject doesn’t have to be important to dignify the genre – but this manages its material with confidence. The Angela who comes back may be an emissary from a world of dark magic, out to torment Char and her family for their defiance – but what’s the entirely human Kelly’s excuse for being a spiteful homicidal psycho? Dolan does include non-speaking or sidelined male characters, but this is an almost entirely female drama and Doupe gets great, unnerving scenes with Bracken (their dance goes from sweet to terrifying in an instant), Craigie, Jones and White.