Connect with us

Film Festivals

‘In My Mother’s Skin’ review: Dir. Kenneth Dagatan [Sundance 2023]

1945, Philippines, near the end of the Second World War, is the setting for writer and director Kenneth Dagatan’s latest film, In My Mother’s Skin. The film formed part of 2023’s Midnight selection at Sundance, earning its place by channelling a Guillermo del Toro masterpiece.

Jasmine Curtis-Smith and Felicity Kyle Napuli appears in In My Mother’s Skin by Kenneth Dagatan, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Epicmedia.

It is after Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli), and her brother Bayani (James Mavie Estrella) are deserted by their father that the troubles begin in In My Mother’s Skin. Left alone with their sickly mother, the children must look after themselves. As the older sibling, Tala feels a sense of duty to provide for and protect both her younger brother and ailing mother. The wartime climate, and her father’s status as a potential traitor means that she has to seek out help from an unlikely source. Whilst exploring in the woods one day, Tala  crosses paths with a fairy (Jasmine Curtis-Smith). The beguiling creature promises Tala her heart’s desire, but at what cost?

In My Mother’s Skin aligns closely with del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, both in tone and several plot points. The comparisons are hard to escape from. Both are set in wartime, feature young women on their own, and face them with insurmountable odds. With del Toro’s instant classic having been released in 2006, enough time has passed that both stories can co-exist. Dagatan’s creation is not a straight reproduction of del Toro’s, as here the director veers more on the scarier side than upsetting. Pan’s Labyrinth is an assault on the emotions; In My Mother’s Skin is more muted. The story is more focussed on Tala stepping into her mother’s skin, as the title suggests. Seeing such a young child take on unfathomable responsibilities is enough to hook the viewer in without having to endure a tidal wave of melancholy. 

Tala’s deals with the Fairy are reminiscent of Dagatan’s previous feature, Ma. That film told of a boy who wished his deceased mother back to life. Dagatan continues that theme as Tala begs for her mother to be well, her father to be found, and for there to be food plentiful enough to sate the hunger of Bayani. Wishes gone wrong, or twisted by those ‘granting’ them is a staple of folk and fairy stories since they began. Leaning into such a familiar idea is a clever move from Dagatan as the well-versed audience waits to see just how wrong Tala’s wishes will turn out. 

A quiet and sombre affair, In My Mother’s Skin opts to keep almost every element on screen dark and shadowy. The house that Tala and Bayani share with their sick mother lives in a perpetual dimness. Regardless of what time of day it is, the building is shrouded in shadows. The structure’s darkness reflects the coldness within the family unit and amplifies the fears felt by the young sibling. Daylight is held as a constant source of safety to children throughout history, and denying Tala the tiniest fracture of sunlight traps her in a waking nightmare. 

Of everything in the film, it is the Fairy that shines the brightest. Clad in sparkling jewels and gold, her appearance screams the sanctuary that Tala has been yearning for, and this is exactly what the creature wants. As in Pan’s Labyrinth, this mythical being is not as the stories had foretold. She is not bright and cheery, but rather harsh and manipulative. She agrees to help Tala, but there are strings attached. Far more of a trickster than a helper, this is one fairy to keep a close eye on. Curtis-Smith does a great job at inhabiting the character, her strongest strength being to out-act her eye-catching costume. The appearance of the Fairy is everything and others might have had their performances lost amongst it, but Curtis-Smith rises above, stealing the film each and every time she appears. 

By not conforming to the expected fairy aesthetic, this creature becomes yet another horror component. In addition to the appearance of the Fairy and its actions, and the dark house that Tala resides in, Dagatan floods the screen with other horrific elements. The piece de resistance is Tala’s mother herself. She is a walking and contorted medley of vomiting, croaking, and malice, and will invoke her fair share of nightmare induced nights. 

Children in harsh circumstances, especially those with supernatural elements, always make for fascinating viewing. However, as good as In My Mother’s Skin’s horror moments and themes are, it doesn’t fully come together. The quiet, sombre pacing drags out some narrative elements too far. In My Mother’s Skin is still a great piece of genre filmmaking, but the slow pace is just a touch too prolonged, which means that the film fails to land with as much impact as it could.  

In My Mother’s Skin

Kat Hughes

In My Mother’s Skin


Whilst the scares are bountiful, there is something of a disconnect that ultimately leaves the viewer wanting more.


In My Mother’s Skin was reviewed at Sundance Film Festival 2023.

Kat Hughes is a UK born film critic and interviewer who has a passion for horror films. An editor for THN, Kat is also a Rotten Tomatoes Approved Critic. She has bylines with Ghouls Magazine, Arrow Video, Film Stories, Certified Forgotten and FILMHOUNDS and has had essays published in home entertainment releases by Vinegar Syndrome and Second Sight. When not writing about horror, Kat hosts micro podcast Movies with Mummy along with her five-year-old daughter.


Latest Posts


More in Film Festivals