Grief and loss manifest in many forms and everyone expresses their painful emotions differently...
...Some appear to adjust quickly, while others struggle to accept the heart-wrenching change and wear all their feelings on their face. The death of a young child is one of the hardest losses to accept; a life cut short before it even had a chance to find meaning. People flock to a mother from the moment she announces her pregnancy but losing a child changes both the woman and people’s perception of her. No longer “a mother of two,” but forever “a woman who lost a child”, regardless of how many surviving children she might have. Having World Premiered this week at SXSW Film Festival, writer/director Stacey Gregg’s directorial debut Here Before gives the audience a domestic psychological thriller focusing on the cyclical grief of a mother unmothered.
In Northern Ireland on the coast of Belfast, Laura (Andrea Riseborough, Mandy) lives on a cul-de-sac with her husband Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill) and surly son Tadgh (Lewis McAskie). A normal enough family situation, but the opening segment begins with echoes of childhood jokes and a cold dig through the front yard turns up a discarded pinwheel. Two separate moments combine to indicate a childhood lost. The family’s loss some years prior is not revealed right away, but the worn portrayal of the mother and the strained family relations indicate life used to be different. Frequently the mother appears to look off into the distance as if searching for something or someone.
One day while picking up her son from school Laura notices the new neighbor Megan (Niamh Dornan) waiting for her mother Marie (Eileen O’Higgins). The little girl strongly resembles Laura’s deceased daughter Josie, so motherly instincts kick in and the two develop a strong bond. The new neighbors Marie and Chris (Martin McCann) try to extend a friendly courtesy, but Laura’s growing attachment to Megan makes the mama bear next door wary. The more time the two spend together, the more memories and reality begin to fracture and melt into one. Adam Janota Bzowski’s score for the film uses sharp notes and sorrowful synthesizers to cut and blend these moments of uncertainty.
Unsurprisingly, Riseborough does a fantastic job portraying psychological instability. Chloë Thomson’s cinematography only perfects her presentation of a grieving mother. Lots of close-ups or slow zoom-ins on Laura create a strong focus on her, slowly eliminating everyone else in the scene. Gregg creates a sense of loneliness and isolation for Laura so pervasive we can feel it even when she’s around other characters. Her son and husband have moments of connections and inside jokes, but Laura cannot seem to make a bond, existing just on the periphery of her family unit. Her drawn face is well-lined with sadness, whereas her husband’s grief is much more subtle and separate from his wife. Even the weather seems to miss Josie; the outside world appears in perpetual overcast. Megan’s presence might just be the light Laura needs, however. Whenever she’s around, both Laura and the sun itself shine brighter.
People looking for a haunted house horror or something a bit gorier won’t find this film as enthralling, but fans of psychological thrillers will be captivated with Andrea Riseborough’s performance and the emotional mind-trip Here Before offers. Gregg presents some hints of supernatural explanations, but she relies heavily on the emotional strain which comes from grief and loss to tell her story. Chloe Thompson’s cinematography, editing, and sound design also contribute immensely to the success of this film. One sequence in particular will stick out; it combines a fitful night of sleep, an eerily cheerful song, and creepy kid imagery. Gregg’s use of drone footage of the labyrinthine roads and circular images creates a suggestion within the setting itself that what was once here before is back again.
Here Before transitions from the tale of an obsessed mother to creepy kid ghost story. Laura is haunted by Josie’s memory, but Megan soon begins to haunt her as well, mentally and physically. Notions of reincarnation become a very real possibility, but Megan and Tadgh’s manipulative abilities come into play as the adults begin to struggle with accepting their realities. The reveal takes a little too long to get to and the build-up drops enough hints beforehand, so not too many people will be surprised. The second act might lose a few viewers because of slower pacing, but the third act pulls you back in with more unsettling trippiness as everything slams into place. Overall, Here Before is an enjoyable film with a lot to unpack and is more than a little open to additional viewings and further discussion.
By Amylou Ahava
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