There is something to be said when a child actor can carry a film, especially when they are acting against some high-class talent. Films like The Omen and Orphan are great examples of creepy kids making excellent antagonists and acting as the glue to piece together an effective horror film. When it comes to films with child actors, it can be hit or miss, if the child does a good job, the film is elevated, but if the child, more often than not, cannot embody the role, the film will fall apart. So what happens when you take a great child actor, the stunning Andrea Riseborough, and a talented director making their feature film debut? You get Here Before, a chilling and tense film about grief, acceptance, and denial.
One of the most interesting things about this film is how mysterious and vague it is about what it is, for the majority of the film. It raises questions of what would you do if something like this was happening to you? Would you roll with it because you are getting a momentary release of dopamine, or would you try and distance yourself from this incredibly weird circumstance you find yourself in? Okay, I’m done being vague now.
Laura (Andrea Riseborough), her husband Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill), and their son Tadhg (Lewis McAskie) are still in pain about the loss of their daughter, Tadgh’s sister, Josie. That right there is probably enough to hold our emotion for a horror film when in the right hands. On one fateful day, a new family moves in next door. It just so happens that this new couple, Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) and Chris (Martin McCann), have a daughter of their own. Enter stage right: Megan (Niamh Dornan). Megan is a young girl who would be about the same age as Josie, which already seems to set off a minor trigger in Laura. While Brendan acts sort of distanced and Tadgh seems to be acting out in anger due to his pain, Laura just can’t seem to shake the existential dread that weighs over her from the loss of Josie.
Initially, trying to be cordial, Laura gives Megan a ride home from school one day when Marie forgets to pick her up. This sets into motion the weird and mysterious set of events. Laura starts to become strangely attached to Megan as she starts exhibiting traits that Josie had. From asking for her patented ketchup smiley face, when she comes over for dinner, to pointing out where Josie is buried saying, “I’ve been there before.” The whole thing sets off an insidious tone from the get-go. As Laura slowly becomes more connected to Megan, Marie notices and gets rightfully uncomfortable about it. From this point out Laura becomes unhinged and takes drastic measures to try and prove to everyone that somehow Josie is possessing or inhabiting Megan in some way, shape, or form. The real truth of this story turns out to be way darker than you could imagine.
Andrea Riseborough has a distinct ability to just knock it out of the park, every time. She is able to elevate any film just by starring in it, from Mandy to Possessor she also seems to be becoming a huge staple in the genre, and that is absolutely perfect. Riseborough takes this performance very seriously and weaves her emotions smoothly from scene to scene. As her mental health starts to decline throughout, we truly feel the raw emotion Riseborough is portraying on screen. To me, this performance stands hand-in-hand with Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary.
On top of Riseborough’s immaculate performance, we have Niamh Dornan as Megan. Here Before happens to be Dornan’s feature film debut and her first acting credit. Dornan does an excellent job as the creepy kid who seems to have ulterior motives. She starts as a sweet young girl but soon turns into a conduit for a dead girl. A lot of the clues that we get about who Megan really is, and why she knows what she does, are wonderfully sprinkled throughout; a second viewing would be perfect to put everything in perspective from the beginning. Once you know what’s going on, the whole film can be summed up by one line from Marie, “some things can’t be fixed, doesn’t mean you should stop trying.”
The cinematography from Chloë Thomson is simple and elegant, it really helps tell the story written by Stacey Gregg. This being the feature film debut of Gregg is also quite impressive. There is a distinct style to Gregg’s direction, and she does a really good job of keeping the tone consistent through the film’s 83 minutes. Dealing with grief is, obviously, not a new concept in horror, but Gregg’s script does a really good job of handling grief subtly. There is no scene in a therapist’s office where a therapist exposits to the main character just so audiences can figure out she’s sad. Gregg drops context clues in a great way so that if you are paying attention you can take these pieces of the puzzle and put them together by the time Laura is putting it all together. I hate to think that a film like this could miss a wide variety of audiences because it could possibly seem too slow. The pacing works really well for this and helps add a level of uncomfortableness to the whole enchilada.
Here Before is a film that explores a common genre theme, while finding its own way to make it different and unique. Gregg found a way to subvert our ideas of what’s happening at just the right moment to elevate the stakes of the film. Since it’s a term that many genre fans resent I hesitate to use it, but this film feels like the perfect example of what elevated horror should strive to be. It’s attainable and easily consumable, at the same point it is not pretentious and it doesn’t talk down to the audience the way a lot of elevated horror seems to do. Overall, Here Before is a chilling tale of grief, and how the human condition comes into play when we are presented with that grief.