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SXSW Review: Here Before Is A Haunting Drama That Underwhelms In Final Act


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In Here Before, Stacey Gregg’s feature writing and directorial debut, grief and unhealthy attachments are at the forefront. Set in a small town in Northern Ireland, the cast, led by the outstanding Andrea Riseborough, is the film’s greatest strength. The turbulent relationships are at the core of a story that is heavily reliant on and tethered to the past. There's a lot to like in this engaging and unnerving drama, but the finale doesn’t come together to deliver on an intriguing and chilling first half.

Here Before follows Laura (Riseborough), who becomes attached to Megan (Niamh Dornan), a clever ten-year-old girl who has recently moved in next door with her mother Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) and stepdad (Martin McCann). Laura starts giving Megan rides home and forges a disconcerting bond with her, one that primarily stems from Megan’s similarities to Josie, the daughter Laura and husband Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill) lost years prior. As the story develops, Laura becomes more convinced that Megan is channeling Josie. Are they the same person? Is this Josie’s ghost? The pair’s relationship is a cause for tension between Laura, her family, and Marie, who is weirded out and worried by Laura’s behavior and Megan’s growing fondness of her.

Here Before has a fantastic setup. The plot is unsettling, becoming even more so as everything unravels. The story is multifaceted and it’s easy to understand why Laura feels close to Megan, who slowly begins to transform into Josie, drawing pictures that see Laura as a stand-in for her mother. These changes seem to come from Megan’s own desire for an ideal family, which she finds with Laura, Brendan, and their son Tadgh. However, as the film moves forward, there are questions regarding whether Megan is, in fact, Josie’s ghost. Or, perhaps Josie has been reincarnated into a new body, which would explain why Megan remembers places and moments that never happened to her — Brendan singing, Laura making a smiley face out of ketchup, etc.

It’s a mystery that gets a lot of attention, albeit one that completely unravels in the final act. As it turns out, the film isn’t interested in providing any answers to the questions it poses, making the finale an underwhelming and disappointing close to what was a deeply unnerving and intriguing concept and buildup. Here Before does a strange heel turn, introducing a new subplot in the film’s final moments, one that is surely meant to explain but actually undermines the entire story instead. It’s a shame, too, since Gregg gives the audience an outstandingly resonant and electrifying first half. The film is obviously building towards something — a major reveal, a thrilling confrontation, a disturbing twist maybe — but Gregg loses the story three-quarters of the way through and never recovers it.

The finale undoes a lot of the development that was already established, primarily between Laura and Megan and, by extension, Laura and Marie, whose growing resentment towards each other changed course. While the film wavers in its story, it’s uplifted by its stupendous cast. Riseborough’s performance is a particular standout. Her portrayal of Laura is laced with anguish, grief, desperation, and a need for connection. For all intents and purposes, Laura has moved on from her daughter’s death, but the lingering, longing, and silent looks from Riseborough tell an entirely different story. The actress masterfully conveys and balances the sadness, hope, and unraveling emotions as Laura works to understand and be heard, often brushed aside by her husband as he tells her to talk to someone simply because he himself can’t deal.

Here Before is fairly dark, delving deep into Laura’s relationship with Megan. It starts harmlessly enough before becoming twisted and perturbed. The loss of a child weighs heavily on the film and is ultimately the root of Laura’s attitude and actions. While that exploration is interesting enough on its own, it’s not enough to sustain the narrative, especially one that offers quite a few mysteries that don’t pan out successfully. To be sure, the film has a lot of potential and would have felt far more complete if Gregg had engaged with the plot threads so seamlessly developed in the first half.

Here Before had its North American premiere during the SXSW Film Festival on March 17, 2021. The film is 83 minutes long and is not yet rated.

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