Stacey Gregg’s Here Before has all the markers of a good movie. Despite its short runtime, it proceeds at a measured pace that gives the appearance of grace. It is elegantly and thoughtfully composed, using doorways and natural obstacles to frame its characters, often isolating them to better evoke a sense of interiority. And it sports another good, nervy performance from Andrea Riseborough, a reliable purveyor of good, nervy performances. Beyond this, it also appears at first to be a quiet, empathetic film about a woman’s grief and fragile mind. But Here Before is also a fatally stupid movie, as interested in pitched, contrived melodrama and moronic twists as it is in aspiring to poetry.
The film concerns Riseborough’s Laura, a mother still shaken by the recent death of her daughter, Josie. When a new family moves into the other half of her family’s duplex, she takes a maternal interest in their daughter, Megan. On several occasions, Megan insists that she’s been “here before,” whether she is referring to places like the park Laura took Josie to or the cemetery the other girl is buried in. It’s only a matter of time before Megan is more openly suggesting that she is Josie, pushing Laura to an emotional breaking point. This results in what is largely an enervating domestic drama, like a series of confrontations between Laura and Megan’s mother, and a few nightmares for Laura. These nightmares are the most compelling part of the movie, suggesting the supernatural evil child picture it should have been. But there’s nothing supernatural about Here Before and its twist ending doesn’t allow even a sliver of tantalizing ambiguity. I won’t spoil the twist, but in the interest of grounding the film in definite reality, Gregg offers an explanation for Megan’s behavior that is so contrived and preposterous it almost loops around to being funny.
That’s too bad, too, because the movie does at times suggest a compelling, empathetic portrait of a woman dealing with something possibly extraordinary. The explanation isn’t quite ordinary — it is ridiculous — but it plays like nothing more than a mean trick, instantly flattening the thoughtful and troubling possibilities of supernatural reading into the stuff of a rote psychological thriller. In this light, the apparent compassion that otherwise pervades the film, which might be mistaken for genuine empathy, starts to feel like table-setting for watching a woman lose her mind as she is gaslit by a 10-year-old.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 3.