Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
BEFORE I WAKE
One of the “pitfalls” of my profession is that I’m tasked to see everything. This means films I can predict will make me uncomfortable, scared or emotional. But obviously, thanks to the nature of incredibly great storytelling, there are movies to which you just can’t anticipate your reaction. These are the films where you expect one thing and walk away with something totally different, but equally enriching. Director/ co-writer Mike Flanagan’s BEFORE I WAKE is one of those films. He and frequent collaborating screenwriter Jeff Howard weave Boogeyman-style scares and emotional resonance into the fabric of a genre film. It’s perhaps their darkest, most somber and contemplative work to date (even though this was shot far before many of their other releases) – so long as you’re willing to really see, and feel it as more than a horror picture.
Jessie (Kate Boseworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) are in the thick of grief over the death of their young son Sean (Antonio Evan Romero). She’s stricken with insomnia and plagued by visions of the tragic accident. He’s trying to circumvent the healing process as much as possible. In order to help lighten their mournful burden, the caring couple decide to foster Cody (Jacob Tremblay), an eight-year-old who has also seen his fair share of grief. His previous caretakers have either died, disappeared on him, or, like his most recent foster father (Dash Mihok), gone stark-raving mad. Cody is leery to bring any further misfortune to anyone else. It’s not long before Jessie and Mark discover Cody’s magical talent: his dreams come alive when he sleeps. Visions of colorful butterflies dance around the living room in a flighty ballet. A glowing, warmth of the Christmas spirit comes back to life and so does Sean – or at least the superficial specter of him. However, it’s not all color and spectacle. Cody’s nightmares also manifest, in the form of a terrifying persona: the Canker Man (Topher Bousquet), who brings fear, death and destruction to his victims.
The characters aren’t all saints – yet all are driven by reasonable human nature. The filmmakers aren’t ashamed to show their hero getting her hands dirty. Jessie does some pretty unscrupulous actions like exploiting Cody’s talent for her benefit, which puts Mark into a sticky moral situation. Mark’s journey is a little less defined than Jessie’s. While he’s never judged for plowing through his grief, it’s clear that the superficial way he covers up his wounds isn’t healthy. And social worker Natalie (Annabeth Gish) is just doing the best she can, trying to protect Cody.
How Flanagan and Howard contextualize real-world grief and loss, and the horrors that go with them is remarkable. Thanks in part to the performances of the three leads, the hollow emptiness of these characters’ shared sadness feels cavernous. It almost becomes a silent character within itself. The filmmakers’ ability to do it without an ounce of manipulation is genuinely noteworthy. The haunting qualities of the twist sneak up on you long after the closing credits, much more than any of the picture’s boogeyman-driven frights. We see tragedy through the lens of the adults and the young protagonist. The resonance of sorrow – how life’s painful realities can scar the psyche – is heartbreaking. I’m not ashamed to admit I wept – something I never expected would occur when I clicked “play.” Plus, for fans of Flanagan and Howard’s other films will spot the shared-universe easter egg (cough, cough. St. Aidan’s hospital).
With an enticing, complementary score from the Newton Brothers and Danny Elfman, and gorgeous cinematography by Michael Fimognari that aches to be seen on the big screen, ultimately BEFORE I WAKE awakens heartrending ideas about hope and healing.
BEFORE I WAKE is now streaming on Netflix.