Review: Before I Disappear

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Content always follows form when it comes to movies. The accepted minimum running time of feature-length films — somewhere in the 80-to-90 minute range —may be the single biggest factor in determining the content of the finished product.

Before I Disappear began as 20-minute short called Curfew that won awards at 40 different film festivals across the globe before earning the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 2013. (Curfew has been widely seen in theaters and on video as part of the annual Oscar Nominated Short Films package.) Festival audiences reportedly expressed their love for Curfew’s tale of personal redemption by repeatedly telling writer, director and star Shawn Christensen that they “wish it was longer,” leading to the 93-minute Before I Disappear. But do the qualities that distinguish a short film necessarily translate to the longer form?

For Before I Disappear, Christensen reshot virtually every scene in Curfew and made very few changes to his dialogue. He also returns in the lead role of Richie, a downtrodden and heartbroken employee at two neighboring Manhattan nightclubs whose half-hearted attempt at suicide is interrupted by a call from his estranged sister Maggie (Emmy Rossum). Richie must pick up his precocious and disinterested 11-year-old niece Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), whom he doesn’t know, beginning a nightlong odyssey through the streets of New York City with his new charge.

While Curfew used the short form to focus on Richie’s battle to regain the trust of his family, Before I Disappear adds a backstory and much detail from Richie’s present-day life to show the sources of his sorry state. Subplots involve warring club owners and a dead woman Richie finds in a bathroom stall, and Richie’s own romantic troubles loom large and cloud his mind. The new material doesn’t have the charm that won over festival audiences and the Academy, and it sometimes seems like padding for ideas best suited to the short. But the original film’s well-drawn and relatable central characters remain, along with vivid fantasy sequences drawn from Richie’s imagination. A standout scene in which a bowling alley full of people turns into dancing flash mob is even better the second time around. The film moves between real and imagined events in graceful and effective style, signifying some real filmmaking chops on Christensen’s part.

The former front man of successful indie rock band stellastarr*, Christensen seems right at home with both his down-and-out characters and the New York club scene. As Sofia, Ptacek is even more charismatic than she was in Curfew now that she’s two years older. Ron Perlman (TV’s Beauty and the Beast) is especially memorable as rock club owner Bill, a guy who’s quietly nostalgic for the Lower East Side of Joey Ramone while fending off the developers that have transformed New York City in recent years. There’s a lot to like here, and Christensen surely has an interesting film career ahead of him — as long as he can come up with an entirely new story next time around.

Before I Disappear begins an exclusive run tonight, Friday, Dec. 5, at the Indywood Theater. More info here.

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