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(The 2021 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 16 and ran through the 20th, all online. Hammer to Nail has tons of coverage coming your way so stay tuned! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not give just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

Rooted in unfathomable tragedy lies a mystery beyond comprehension. Such is the fantastical thriller swirling around Laura (Andrea Riseborough, Nancy), a woman who has long since put the dead to rest, only to be faced with a resurrection. When she, husband Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and son Tadhg (Lewis McAskie) gain new neighbors on the other side of their split townhouse, little do they realize how much the fresh arrivals will affect them. 

That family has an 8-year-old daughter, Megan (Niamh Dornan), who so resembles Laura and Brendan’s own little girl, Josie, who died many years ago, that it’s almost overwhelming. When, in addition, Megan starts speaking to Laura as if she remembers things that only Josie could know, it becomes downright eerie. Could this really be her long-deceased daughter come back to life? That is the unsettling question asked in Here Before, from director Stacey Gregg.

Beyond the supernatural underpinnings of its story, the film is shot in realistic tones, the cold grays and blues of Northern Ireland’s Belfast working in cinematic opposition to the gathering emotional storm. Building the drama carefully, each seemingly simple scene adding unexpected complexity, Gregg takes her time establishing character and motivation. The less said the better, the script blissfully free of excess exposition, so much so that little clues escape us until Gregg circles back to them, the repetition doing the work instead of dialogue. Riseborough is, here and everywhere, always a marvel; as Laura begins to fall apart, she makes us feel the entirety of her past history with Josie, long buried, now surfacing in raw disbelief. 

There is more to the neighbors than we first realize, and by the time the truth behind the riddle comes out, it’s a bit of a shock, given how fully we are invested in one version of the tale. Megan’s parents, Marie (Eileen O’Higgins) and Chris (Martin McCann), have a secret of their own, less mystical but more sordid. As the two halves of the narrative come together, it mirrors the two sides of the townhouse merging, both families finally confronting reality. More than anything, Here Before is a meditation on grief. Laura thinks she has found peace, but a lost child is never fully buried, the past never far from the present. How far would you go to turn back time? In this evocative movie, one mother goes all the way.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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