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The way profound grief can become a path leading to belief in reincarnation and other supernatural phenomena forms the thematic tarmac for SXSW competitor Here Before. This wintery, unsettling drama, flecked with horror tropes in the tradition of Don’t Look Now, Birth and other British-made meditations on loss, marks a distinctive and impressive debut for writer-director Stacey Gregg, who has worked mostly in British and Irish theater as well as writing episodes for TV shows such as Riviera.
Set in a quiet suburb on the edge of proper countryside in Northern Ireland, where Gregg herself grew up, the film wraps itself snugly around a nuanced, layered performance from Andrea Riseborough as a bereaved mother who sees a striking similarity to her late daughter in a little girl (Niam Dornan) who just moved in next door.
Decked out in mom jeans and a neglected-looking blonde bleach job for this role, the chameleonic Riseborough stars as Laura, a homemaker who seems at first glance to have an affectionate, jocular relationship with her young adolescent son Tadgh (Lewis McAskie) and a strong bond with husband Brendan (Jonjo O’Neil, The Queen’s Gambit) who does some unspecified office job during the day. Laura dispenses warm smiles to everyone she meets and seems perpetually busy with housework and chauffeuring Tadgh to and from school. But before even a word of backstory is whispered, you can tell just by the way she looks wistfully at a crumpled plastic pinwheel she finds in a flowerbed or sits quietly in a spare room that looks newly repainted that there’s a significant absence in her life.
It turns out that Josie (a fleetingly seen Grace O’Dwyer), the couple’s daughter, died a few years ago in a car accident while Brendan was driving, an event conveyed through few thin slices of editing during the opening credits. The sense conveyed is that the emotional scars are still there even if the wounds no longer bleed, and as parents Brendan and Laura especially have been making an effort to be present for Tadgh so he doesn’t feel stranded by the retreating tsunami of grief.
One day, a young family — pretty Marie (Eileen O’Higgins), sporty Chris (Martin McCann) and quirky 10-year-old fan of hang-gliding Megan (Dornan) — move in next door into the other half of the semi-detached building (what Brits call a townhouse duplex) that contains Laura’s family home on one side and a mirrored accommodation on the other. Through a series of finely observed scenes, Gregg’s script and the cast’s semi-improvised performances limn the complex quadrille of manners, friendliness and mutually observed boundaries that govern neighborly relations in suburbs of the British Isles — especially in Northern Ireland, where the memory of the Troubles and sectarian strife still haunt the collective psyche, making neighbors wary of one another. Laura and Megan might chat a little in the front garden, and the mothers can smile and say hello. But when Brendan makes a cutting remark about tattoos in the presence of sleeve-tattooed Chris, everyone just knows that the families come from different classes and a certain distance will maintained.
However, when Laura sees Megan standing by herself at the school gates when she’s collecting Tadgh one afternoon, she senses the child’s distress over Marie’s absence and gives in to Megan’s request for a lift home. On the way, Megan remarks on remembering the cemetery where Josie is buried, an odd observation since as far as Laura knows, Megan has never lived in the town before.
It doesn’t seem like such a big deal at first, but as the weeks pass and Laura makes efforts to get closer to the child — pretending it’s for Tadgh’s sake although he would rather stick pins in his eyes than hang out with a younger girl — little things Megan says and does lead Laura to believe there’s a connection between the kid next door and her late daughter. Could Josie’s soul have transmigrated after death into Megan, or is there a more mundane explanation that Laura, with her stifled need to connect to her lost child, just can’t see right in front of her?
The answer to that question starts to seem pretty obvious around halfway through the film, and there’s a whopping big tell three quarters of the way in, but Gregg keeps playfully strumming the horror notes throughout to amp up the ambiguity. Consequently, there are lots of shots of faces just glimpsed through windows, and an uncanny dream sequence where a child whose face is a blur of movement seems to crawl into bed with Laura and Brendon, like a cuckoo stealing into a nest (or an escapee from Jacob’s Ladder, Adrian Lyne’s 1990 horror-thriller that featured a very similar creepy fast-motion-face effect).
Elsewhere, drone shots from odd angles and camera set-ups through doorways (DP Chloe Thomson’s work throughout is consistently thoughtful and otherworldly) suggest that events are being seen through the eyes of an observing ghost, one who can even see through walls, which goes with the smudged sense of who is the narrator of this story. Mostly, we see events through Laura’s eyes, not literally but in the sense that it’s her movements and reactions that guide the story. But then there will be an unsettling swerve to follow Brendan, for instance, somewhat violating the generic conventions for stories about disturbed/haunted characters puzzling over what’s real or fantasy, which tend to stick to just one point of view.
Some viewers will embrace that deviation from convention and find alongside it much to admire here, including a strong sense of place without trotting out the usual cliches about the region. That said, it doesn’t quite hit the same woozy heights of imaginative ecstasy achieved by another recent British film about a traumatized woman struggling with the supernatural in the sticks, Rose Glass’ Saint Maud, with which it’s sure to invoke comparisons. Here Before is quieter, colder and boasts none of the crazy erotic charge, but it has its own peculiar spirit and casts a very witchy spell, thanks particularly to Gregg’s adept handling of both experienced and young, less proven performers.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Niamh Dornan, Jonjo O’Neill, Eileen O’Higgins, Martin McCann, Lewis Mcaskie Production: A BBC Films, Pia Pressure, Northern Ireland Screen presentation of a Rooks Nest production
Director/screenwriter: Stacey Gregg
Producers: Julia Godzinskaya, Sophie Vickers
Executive producers: Eva Yates, Pia Getty, James Durrant, Will Norton
Director of photography: Chloe Thomson
Editors: Brian Philip Davis, Nick Emerson
Production designer: Patrick Creighton
Costume designer: Timmy White
Music: Adam Janota Bzowski
Casting: Carla Stronge
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