They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but an inverse aphorism might also true: the tree doesn’t grow far from where the apple falls. Ok, the ecology of the metaphor doesn’t completely hold up, but it seems apt in talking about Before I Disappear. The movie is based on the Academy Award winning short “Curfew,” and this feature length growth of that seed retains much of the original’s quality.
This is a movie that lives in a state of duality. Opposites aren’t reduced to blandness; rather, they stand out all the more for the contrast, yet the quality of the filmmaking is such that they hold tension in a unified whole. Light exists with the dark. Depression exists with levity. Listlessness exists with purpose. It’s not a new idea, of course, but it’s one this picture is based on rather than one it merely incorporates.
The story is that of Richie (Shawn Christensen, who also writes and directs), a burnout with no real friends and seemingly no future working as a janitor at a nightclub. As quickly becomes apparent, Richie is suicidal, due in part it seems to the death of a serious girlfriend, an event which may have led to his current low (for lack of caring) social status as well. His first attempt to kill himself is interrupted by a frantic call from his very successful and put together sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), an odd event given that she normally wants nothing to do with him. She asks Richie to pick up her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek, reprising her role in “Curfew”) from school. As Maggie continues to be mysteriously absent and unresponsive to phone calls, Richie is suddenly in the awkward position of acting as caretaker for his niece.
With that baseline, let’s begin with the dualities. The first is a simple character one. If the quintessential depressive slacker suddenly became the new normal for a well adjusted adult, Richie would still be a depressive slacker. This stands in opposition to Sophia’s meticulous efficiency. What’s smart about the character, though, is she’s never so cold as that. There’s personality to Sophia’s terse attitude. It’s clear early on that this is a learned behavior, an “us against the world” mentality learned from her mother and her consciously harsh exterior fits the pre-teen/early teen character as a convincing defense mechanism. As the film progresses, we’re shown the childish vulnerability of her character that needs Richie’s protection as well as the capable young woman that’s just beginning to emerge from adolescence.
Ptacek is also outstanding in the role. Richie is our main character, but his personality is intentionally drab. Sophia is the heart of the film, and Ptacek owns both the aggressive and the scared sides of Sophia. She has a physical presence on screen that exudes her character’s capability, but an ability to pull back at the same time so that we can see the character’s lack of confidence even as we see her potential. She reminds me a little of Hailee Steinfeld when she burst onto the scene in True Grit. Without the support of Coen-level publicity backing Before I Disappear, I doubt there will be enough public recognition to catapult Ptacek into the same kind of instant stardom, but I’m excited to see her future.
The other thing that Sophia’s character is instrumental in introducing is a large proportion of the film’s humor. This is frequently, though not quite consistently, a very funny film. I guess this is about the third time I’ve said this now, but Richie’s experience of the world is overwhelmingly negative. He lives and works in the underbelly of the city. The film opens with him discovering a girl dead of a heroin overdose in the bathroom of the club where he works. There are funny moments without Sophia, but they tend to stem from surrealism within the darkness of Richie’s life. In spite all the time she spends berating Richie, Sophia is the brightness, the life to counteract Richie’s dark and deathly outlook. It’s something the film relies on to give it texture. Richie’s world alone would be oppressively negative, nigh unwatchable. In fact, without Sophia it would be a very short film because Richie would be dead.
The places that Christensen tries to take the plot and characters are spot on, but there are some meaningful hiccups in the ways he attempts to get there. First off, Christensen has clearly made a commitment that his feature should not be content-light. There are a lot of elements that figure into the plot. Attempting to list them here would likely destroy some of the magic of seeing what proves significant for those who do see the movie, so I won’t do that. Having so many threads to follow is, in fact hugely important. Richie is possessed of a drive, however pathetic, to see all his loose ends tied up either before his suicide or by his suicide. Primarily, this means he can’t leave Sophia until they figure out what’s happened to Maggie, but it affects other subplots as well. It also makes the world in which the film feel very whole, and makes Richie a believable character. The life of every person on earth is connected to more than we give it credit for, and this is reflected in the subplots upon subplots in which Richie participates.
But as is often the case, this is a double-edged sword. Like the character he plays, Christensen as writer and director seems obsessed with drawing up each subplot that is introduced, and it makes the film feel a little bloated and overbusy. Removing two or three of these subplots could have made the pic leaner and more narratively cohesive; as it is, the plot sprawls, especially towards the end. There’s a scene that ends up being about 2/3 of the way through the movie that felt like it could have potentially been the end, and considering that this is just a 93 minute film, that’s significant. By the true ending, it feels like we’ve been in an epilogue for far too long closing plot elements that don’t necessarily contribute to the arcs of the characters, but are just narrative loose ends.
The only other real gripe I had with the movie is that the dialogue. It’s serviceable most of the time, but Christensen has a tendency to make his characters unnecessarily preachy. There’s only so much philosophizing we can be expected to take, particularly when it’s from the mouths of underworld junkies.
This review is beginning to run long, but I will not conclude it without spending some time talking about my favorite single element of the film: the lighting. The entire movie has a very ethereal, almost dreamlike vibe that stems from it being the world as seen by Richie, whose perspective is constantly altered by drugs, physical ailments, and his general suicidal malaise. This allows some of the more reality-envelope-pushing bits to be perfectly palatable, but it is the lighting that sells the illusion of slightly impaired reality. Like so much of the plot, the lighting exists in high contrast with a leaning towards darkness. Much of the movie takes place at night, and combined with the locales that Richie tends to frequent, this darkness is punctuated by bright reds, blues, and oranges. The production also uses lighting effects to transition from reality into a couple of short dreamlike sequences Richie sees. Vision sequences can so often be jarring, but it’s nearly seamless here. Plus, beyond all the ways the lighting, erm, highlights the narrative and thematic forces at play, it makes for an absolutely beautiful film.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
The narrative issues, especially, still make this feel like an early feature where the writer/director is still figuring out exactly what can and can’t be done within the confines of an hour and a half narrative feature film, and this is Shawn Christensen’s first time directing a feature film. But that considered, what a debut! There is a lot in this movie that works at a very high level. Whereas many struggle to know how to craft a complex and poignant story, Christensen is looking more at refinement. He’d actually be well served to simplify, which is kind of funny seeing as this movie started out as a short film. Both he as a director and Fatima Ptacek as an actress are figures to watch. Also, whoever did the lighting for this movie, they need to be recognized. There was good cinematography to go with it, yes, but my goodness this is a gorgeously lit film.