Back in 1929, author Virginia Woolf famously declared “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” a proto-feminist article of faith which is starkly illustrated in Georgian director Ana Urushadze’s attention-grabbing debut Scary Mother. A compelling mix of domestic drama and psychological thriller, this Georgia-Estonia co-production is already much feted on the festival circuit, taking home the top prize at the Sarajevo Film Festival last week shortly after winning for best first feature at Locarno.

Still in her twenties, Urushadze is the daughter of acclaimed Georgian director Zaza Urushadze, whose 2013 feature Tangerines was shortlisted for an Oscar. Unusually assured for a debut feature, with a strong visual aesthetic and a healthy streak of absurdist humor, Scary Mother is further proof that Georgia’s emergent new wave of young filmmakers still has plenty of juice in the tank. Further festival booking are highly likely, with prizes and positive reviews making a solid case for niche theatrical business.

In a drab post-Soviet concrete apartment block towering over the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, 50-year-old Manana (Nato Murvanidze) is about to explode. After years of sacrificing her literary ambitions to dutiful domestic routine, she is now in full mid-life meltdown mode. Her husband Anri (Dimitri Tatishvili) makes vaguely supportive noises about her writing, though he views her artistic aspirations with condescension bordering on contempt.

Outside the family apartment, Manana finds more encouragement. Her local neighborhood stationery store owner Nukri (Ramaz Ioseliani) is convinced that her sexually graphic unfinished novel is a taboo-breaking masterpiece, offering his services as unofficial editor and agent. Manana also shares the novel with her father Jarji (Avtandil Makharadze), who is translating it into English without knowing the writer’s true identity. “I have never read such a filthy author,” he rasps approvingly, “the text is ingenious and obscene at the same time.”

Manana tries to play the obedient wife and mother at home, but her mask keeps slipping. When she shares an extract of the novel, a scouring tirade full of autobiographical parallels, Anri becomes apoplectic. “You write cheap pornography pretending you’re a genius!” he fumes. Seemingly unable to tell the difference between reportage and fantasy, Anri’s response is to burn the manuscript. This only hardens Manana’s resolve to pursue her literary dreams. She flees the apartment for a refuge in Nukri’s store, a womb-like room painted in rich reds that stand in stark contrast to the drab gray cityscape outside.

Initially a fairly straight feminist parable about the disparity of traditional gender roles, Scary Mother takes on a more unsettling, surreal, nightmarish feel in its latter half. A nerve-jangling chase through Tblisi’s subway system, a feverish dream sequence and an awkward erotic interlude in a moonlit courtyard all amplify the sense that Manana may be cracking up under the pressure. She starts to identify with her near-namesake the Manananggal, a mythic female vampire from the Philippines, and claims to find cryptic literary clues hidden in bathroom tiles. This only terrifies Anri even more. But it is Manana’s emancipation from patriarchy that really scares him, of course, not her blood-sucking fantasies.

Scary Mother exhibits few of the typical defects of a debut feature, but it is not flawless. The final act feels a little inconclusive, with historical family secrets thrown into the mix too late and too casually. Manana’s true state of mind is never fully established, and neither is the ratio of pure fabrication to true confession in her novel. A creepy Lynchian oddness hovers teasingly at the edge of the frame, but never fully manifests.

That said, Scary Mother is a classy and satisfying package overall. Making imaginative use of limited resources, Urushadze and cinematographer Mindia Esadze transform the mottled concrete slabs and rusty urban fabric of Tbilisi into artfully framed tableaux, painterly and symmetrical. The cast deliver expressive, haunted faces and intense, prickly performances. Nika Pasuri’s score also deepens the disquieting mood, a sparse but effective tapestry of crackle and fizz, jarring percussion and baleful piano.

Production companies: Studio Artizm, Allfilm, Gemini
Cast: Nata Murvanidze, Dimitri Tatishvili, Ramaz Ioseliani, Avtandil Makharadze, Anastasia Chanturaia
Director-screenwriter: Ana Urushadze
Producer: Lasha Khalvashi
Cinematographer: Mindia Esadze
Editor: Alexander Kuranov
Production design: Tea Telia
Music: Nika Pasuri

Venue: Sarajevo Film Festival
Sales company: Alief LLC

103 minutes