Stacey Gregg’s sad and unsettling directorial debut tangles together dark psychological thriller with a ghost story. Though it offers a terrific central performance from Andrea Riseborough, Here Before does lose the plot.
Laura (Riseborough) is a mother still grieving over the loss of her daughter, Josie. Despite her supportive family (Jonjo O’Neill and Lewis McAskie), nothing fills the void. When another family move next door, Laura finds herself slowly drawn to Megan (Niamh Dornan), a girl who is the age that Josie was when she died. As Megan becomes closer to her, Laura’s acute feelings of loss bubble up in worryingly obsessive behaviour. But is there more to this little girl than meets the eye?
Despite the obvious tension evoked the first time Laura gives Megan a ride home, which slowly spirals into scenes that are often nail-bitingly awkward, Gregg’s film remains surprisingly understated. Chloë Thomson’s cinematography is subtly unnerving, with its mournful composed stillness in cramped interiors, wild, natural imagery and swooping aerial shots over suburban Northern Ireland. Adam Janota Bzowkski’s quiet, eerie score percolates beneath a prevalently chilly ambience. Gregg abruptly cuts scenes short, allowing for few moments of real ease or relief on the part of the characters or the audience. Problems are left unresolved, and so they fester into the queasy mood of paranoia later on.
Yet despite Laura’s delirious descent, the director-writer never drops an empathetic approach towards her pain and confusion. Riseborough’s sympathetic portrayal is consistently believable and pitiable, even when Gregg’s style and screenplay eventually become unbalanced and implausible. Leaning into nauseating psychological horror cinema tricks (mildly amusing jump scares and typical uncanny nightmare-reality blurring), the director-writer misleads the audience on the story’s direction. However, the third act ends up unravelling the film’s disconcerting atmosphere and considered characterisation.
It’s a shame, as Here Before finds momentary success in depicting those desperate, damaging impulses in a way that is both deeply perturbing yet recognisable. Unfortunately, Gregg’s debut underwhelms as a disquieting exploration of motherhood and loss by being led astray in a silly, soap-opera-like conceit.
Here Before is released in select cinemas on 18th February 2022.
Watch the trailer for Here Before here: