SXSW Review: Before I Disappear
Shawn Christensen's 2012 short film Curfew was a film-festival darling, winning 15 awards including a 2013 Oscar. I haven't seen Curfew, but certainly want to if it's as good as the feature-length version of the same story, Before I Disappear.
Christensen's debut feature is quirky, but I mean that in a good way. A genre-bending mix of family drama, thriller, love story and surreal fantasy, Before I Disappear is the dark story of Richie (Christensen), a broke and depressed drug addict adrift in New York City. He spends his time hanging out in seedy clubs and earning a meager living as a janitor. His job only compounds his depression when he cleans a restroom and finds the body of an overdose victim, a beautiful woman who reminds him of his dead girlfriend.
One afternoon, a phone call interrupts Richie's halfhearted attempt to kill himself. Long estranged from his family, he's surprised that the call is from his wealthy and far more functional sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), who asks him to take care of her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), for a few hours after school. A series of bizarre events keeps Maggie busy all night and forces Richie and Sophia to spend the night wandering the streets of New York and visiting Richie's favorite haunts. (They're not places any sane person would take a child.)
And what a strange night it is as the two get to know each other. Richie is an eternal black sheep living a life without direction; Sophie is an excellent student who's skipping the sixth grade, excels at gymnastics and sees no limits to her future. She can't stand her grubby, dysfunctional uncle at first and wonders why Mom called him. He's not crazy about her either, but does his best to fulfill his obligation to Maggie.
Somewhat predictably, Richie and Sophia eventually bond; they even become fiercely protective of each other as the night wears wearily on. Less predictable is the odd late-night New York world around them. There are scary encounters with Richie's drug-addled cohorts and an intriguing mystery involving the dead woman in the restroom. There are also scary encounters with New York itself, sometimes an unwelcoming place in the wee hours.
Before I Disappear feels fresh because it tells its story and develops its characters in unusual ways, especially in dreamlike, surrealistic scenes that blend surprisingly well with the film's more conventional elements. (A bowling alley musical sequence is particularly memorable.) On the surface, Before I Disappear is about how the complexities of life can tear families apart. But under the surface is an intriguing study of the vastly different ways people deal with those complexities. The bizarre events of one night in New York are metaphors for life's far more fundamental problems, which Richie and Sophia confront very differently.
Before I Disappear is also a meditation on death. Richie sees death as a release, something to be embraced if embracing it is easier than dealing with life. Sophia, wise for her age, sees death as a bitter end to be avoided at all costs. But wise or not, she's eleven years old and can't fully understand why some adults don't embrace the future.
If all the tragedy sounds too dour and heavy, rest assured that it isn't. Before I Disappear is funny enough -- darkly funny, that is -- to avoid being a downer. Family dysfunction isn't a million laughs, but there are quite a few of them in Before I Disappear. When not being tragic, it can be hilariously sarcastic.
Directing yourself in a film isn't easy, but Christensen does a fine job of helming Before I Disappear while also appearing in almost every scene. His performance as Richie is strong, if maybe a bit too strident at times (probably due to a script full of yelling), and he's a thoroughly believable suicidal sad sack. But the film's real charmer is Ptacek, a very experienced actress for her age. (She has nearly 20 acting credits, including appearing on Sesame Street with Michelle Obama and voicing Dora the Explorer.) As Sophia, she's at once sassy, slightly arrogant and yet good hearted, projecting a seriousness and worldliness beyond her years. Ptacek is a very appealing young performer; I hope we'll see more of her work in the future.
Before I Disappear isn't the film I expected; few moviegoers would expect such a serious and thematically complex movie to be so appealingly off-kilter. But this is exactly why I recommend it -- it's a pleasant surprise from a filmmaker with a unique style. Like the short film it's based on, it's an indie standout that deserves plenty of praise.
Before I Disappear screens again at SXSW on Friday, March 14 at 4:15 pm at the Stateside Theatre.