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SXSW 2021 Review: 'Here Before' pits Andrea Riseborough against haunted minds

Stacey Gregg's 'Here Before' sends a mother spiraling when she thinks her deceased daughter has been reincarnated as another family's daughter.

Andrea Riseborough in 'Here Before.'
(Image: © SXSW)

Our Verdict

'Here Before' is Andrea Riseborough trapped within a different interpretation of a haunted house—demons of the mind—but she's forced to shoulder the weight of a slower than expected psychological thriller.

For

  • 🍅 Andrea Riseborough sure does rise to the occasion.
  • 🍅 A treacherous display of mental gymnastics.
  • 🍅 An inspiring feature debut.

Against

  • 🍅 Chooses a path of little resistance.
  • 🍅 A mix of subgenres that feels out of balance.
  • 🍅 Third act payoffs are a whimper.

Here Before is part of our SXSW 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

As characters experience in Stacey Gregg's Here Before, insurmountable grief has been guiding many horror-focused narratives over the last few years. Last year alone boasts the tremendous trifecta of Relic, The Dark And The Wicked, and Sator, all ripple effects from the splash Ari Aster's Hereditary made on the genre. Gregg's 2021 South by Southwest premiere channels the hardships, inescapable lows, and lasting scars that corrode mental conditions after a sudden loss. It's far more psychologically driven than even the softest speaking terrifiers above but still mirrors frameworks of broken families with at least a suggestion of supernatural threats. Whether or not Gregg's screenplay stays the course and nurtures frightening elements into a finale with staying power is another question—and less enthusiastic response—altogether.

For parents Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and Brendan (Jonjo O'Neill), for their son Tadhg (Lewis McAskie), each day brings some reminder of their deceased daughter-slash-sister, Josie (Grace O'Dwyer). Those somber thoughts, the emptiness that follows, only worsens when new neighbors Chris (Martin McCann) and Marie (Eileen O'Higgins) move next door with happy-go-lucky daughter Megan (Niamh Dornan). Laura holds onto Josie's memory tightest, to the point where she's not willing to move onward. As a result of offhanded comments and shared behavioral quirks, Laura starts to believe Megan is Josie reincarnated—which causes conflict between both families. Will Laura be proven sane or be slapped with a restraining order?

As if there was any question, Andrea Riseborough loses herself with relatable apprehension and contemplation to the paranormal notion that Josie has inhabited the vessel of another offspring. Here Before values the simmer more than boil, with Riseborough drowning under inward conflict as skip-about Megan asks for ketchup smilies on fish stick sandwiches just like Josie. Gregg's focus is on understated turmoil. Laura understands her rantings about reanimation sound bonkers, which seeps into a performance that, while racked with guilt, remains fitly skeptical yet demands answers. Grief causes swirling storms in psyches that cannot be predicted, and Riseborough paints anguish on her face as a mother who'd rather not relive, yet pushes through insanity if it means even one more night with her character's beloved child.

The "simmer" aspect of Here Before is essential because Gregg isn't here to drop a sledgehammer like Orphan or Hereditary. The most disquieting segment invades Laura's nightmare as Megan's head blurs in a fast-forward whipping motion to "Love You" by Free Design as the girl lays between Laura and Brendan in bed. Still, even that isn't outright frightening by hardcore genre standards. Here Before is subdued, playing the replacement mother card as Laura chauffers Megan to the park but never with psychotic intent—perhaps breaking Laura and Brendan apart as Laura demands isolation to regroup, which again rarely raises alarms. Everything Gregg uses as plotted pivots or accelerations never hit top speeds, as the final act merely comes and goes without making much of a kerfuffle. A culmination without massive impact, the only time where less boisterous performances seem to fail Gregg's directorial vision.

It's hard to surmise my third-act qualms without revealing tricks of Gregg's trade, but I will adhere to protocol. Here Before is never better than those moments where Riseborough wrestles impossible rationalizations between mortal restrictions and Megan's experiential recollections (maybe as Josie). Where latter scripting explores—how answers arise—never honors the more memorable examinations of depressive clouds and how far someone might slip to welcome sunlight back into daily routines. It's never Pet Sematary—Gregg's interest favors explainable drama. Nor is that an outright knock because Gregg never positions horror at the forefront of her mystery. It's more how establishing character development and seeds planted by an either possessed or devious Niamh Dornan never blossom during a finale that sustains the same near-boil that spends most scenes at lukewarm temperatures. A film that from start to finish presents itself as in maintenance mode.

Here Before reaches its limits early, but with Andrea Riseborough at the lead, smartly champions performances over what other storytellers might steer into midnight diversions. Per my cinematic tastes, there's still a secret ingredient missing—appreciation will vary. For those more inclined to rewatch sleepy horror-adjacent stories about grief in its purest and messiest form, Riseborough's portrayal desperately tries to bring about the end of heartache. If there's any takeaway from my word choice, it should be terms like "simmer," "slow," and "sleepy," as a disclaimer. Stacey Gregg undoubtedly commands her feature debut with meticulous grace and impressive first-time sensibilities; the problem becomes whether or not narrative flow matches your pacing needs.