Andrea Riseborough. That’s it; that’s the review.
…okay fine, I’ll say more.
If there’s anyone who has been a film festival genre darling in the past couple years, it’s been Andrea Riseborough. Her transformation from British prestige drama actress to bonafide scream queen of quirky indie horror has been a revelation. From the titular role in the cosmically batshit Mandy, to her brutally powerhouse performance at the helm of Possessor, and even in something like The Grudge, a studio horror film that, while generally bad, she still stole every scene she was in because she’s what? Andrea. Fucking. Riseborough. Riseborough’s turn in Stacey Gregg’s Here Before is significantly less horror than any of the aforementioned titles, but Riseborough’s shine is no less dimmed, thanks in part to Gregg’s hauntingly grounded handling of the material.
Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is a mother living a seemingly normal life in a suburb of Belfast, Northern Ireland, with her husband (Jonjo O’Neill) and son (Lewis McAskie). When a young couple (Martin McCann, Eileen O’Higgins) moves in next door with their young daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan), Laura sees her reality fade away from her when she begins to believe that Megan is the reincarnation of her dead daughter, Josie, killed in a car accident. Relationships are tested, tensions are fraught, and Laura fends off her own psyche to try and discover the truth surrounding Megan.
Here Before isn’t necessarily as mind-bending as it sounds on paper, as Gregg really keeps the film grounded in a plausible reality that prevents the story from going too off the rails. Possessor this is not, by any means, but there are more than enough curveballs and genuinely clever plot devices that are employed here to makes the end product feel like a truly realized vision. So often films of this level of ambition tend to leave too much on the table to somehow justify their own existence (many in the wake of the Shyamalan boom of the early-2000s), but Here Before does exactly as much as it needs to at a perfect pace. At only 84 minutes, Here Before never overstays its welcome and plays each hand it has up its sleeve at a perfectly paced rate. In a world of Snyder Cuts and Irishman’s, be a Here Before.
Did I mention earlier that I love Andrea Riseborough? I really just want to make sure that’s hammered into your system before you stop reading, and in Here Before, she’s no less radiant than ever. Riseborough brings such a sympathetic perspective to Laura here that you really do believe in the genuinely maddening tomfoolery happening around her. Other actresses would love to play into the outside view that Laura is crazy, but Riseborough finds such a stride in making every thought and feeling Laura has swirling in her brain fully known and understood by the audience. She simply has that power innately, and it’s stunning to watch unfold and gets better every time I watch her.
Not to get all “Delegate of the Tourism Office” on you, but I love whenever filmmakers from Northern Ireland, or ones not from Northern Ireland who simply know what’s up, take full advantage of the unique setting that Belfast offers on screen. There’s a hometown feel in the city that’s unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Europe that transfers so well to gritty, adult dramas like Here Before in a way that London just can’t achieve. Lush locales, intimate architecture and a working class vibe that screams “Bitch, we’re still here” really makes Here Before feel right at home. It’s not something that’s inherently noticeable at first, but it provides the film with a lovely tone that just works.
The constrained intimacy of Here Before catches the audience off guard a fair bit, as if they were watching a stage play unfold on screen. Much in the way that The Father (actually adapted from a stage play) utilizes its limited cast and settings well, there’s a theatrical air that Gregg imbues to the film. This helps the entire thing feel just that slightest bit more claustrophobic and tightened where you really could imagine someone snapping under such oppressively mundane circumstances.
Here Before is perhaps the most effective film I’ve seen at SXSW this year, with Andrea Riseborough’s performance perhaps being the height of the whole thing. Gregg takes a story that could’ve been milked for all its worth and imbues it with such restrained energy that becomes advantageous in keeping the film from ever feeling ridiculous or far-fetched. Thrillers can be thrilling when they go over-the-top, but the mystery, suspense, and drama of everything that makes films like this great hits harder when it feels like it’s happening in your own backyard. I’m simply glad it’s not, because I would not want either of these families as neighbors.
Screening at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 17th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.