Writer-director-star Shawn Christensen's Oscar-winning 2012 short "Curfew" stuffs a substantial amount of emotion and personality into 20 minutes. "Before I Disappear," Christensen's polished feature-length treatment of the same scenario, contains all the strong moments that distinguished "Curfew" while surrounding them with a lot of superfluous additions. Carried along once again by Christensen's fragile turn as a suicidal young New Yorker named Richie and the vivacious adolescent Fatima Ptacek as Richie's fiercely individualistic niece, "Before I Disappear" features several moments of genuine emotion in an otherwise underwhelming plot involving the main character coming out of his shell. It's a heartfelt journey, but we've seen it before, without the excess distractions.
Nevertheless, the movie provides some welcome context to the events from the short that eloquently define Richie's downtrodden sensibilities. While "Curfew" opened with the character in a blood-soaked bathtub shortly after slitting his wrists, "Before I Disappear" reveals the incidents leading up to his decision: During a late night shift during his deadbeat job scrubbing toilets at a bowling alley, he discovers a beautiful woman in one stall dead from a heroin overdose. Gazing into her blank expression, the somber Richie — already in a foul mood in the aftermath of a breakup — sees no reason to stick around much longer. "I felt a closer connection to the dead girl on the toilet seat than than the live people around her," he intones in voiceover. It's an effective setup for the ensuing drama, which finds Richie called away from his attempt at a premature death when his estranged sister (Emmy Rossum, taking on a role played by Kim Allen in the short) winds up in jail following an incursion with her violent ex. That leaves Richie to care for her preppy daughter Sophia (Ptacek), who's initially standoffish toward her mess of an uncle until the two bond over their mutual loneliness.
In the short, the premise takes place with concise developments mainly steeped in the chemistry between the two actors. That much remains in place: While Ptacek has grown slightly too old for the part, she's still a focused, energetic screen presence, whose intermittently moody and upbeat temperament forms a meaningful contrast with Richie's low key demeanor. Yet as their story expands, "Before I Disappear" offers little aside from meandering exposition. Among the fragments: an angry phone call between the warring siblings, a physical confrontation between Richie and his sister's ex, and the curious relationship he forms with the boyfriend of the dead woman from the beginning. None of these bits lack competence on individual terms, but they largely play out like a series of vignettes that take attention away from the strength of the original ingredients. One of the more extraneous elements comes from the presence of a scenery-chewing Ron Perlman, in the quasi-menacing role of Richie's shady boss, doing a cartoonish hustler out of sync with the more credible performances at work. More generally, neither the domestic issues plaguing Richie's sister or his own romantic problems grow involving enough to make for an overall compelling narrative.
But "Before I Disappear" is mostly salvaged by the ingredients migrated over from its source material. That's especially true with respect to the crucial inclusion of the original composition "Sophia So Far," performed by Christensen's band Goodnight Radio — a funky, rhythmic track that plays at the bowling alley while Richie imagines everyone around him engaged in a synchronized dance. The delightful blend of magic realism and musicality in this scene hints at possibilities that go unrealized for the remainder of the subdued proceedings.
Still, the movie reflects considerable effort to make Richie's expressive world come to life through the lens of his emotional instability. Christensen and cinematographer Daniel Katz primarily succeed at establishing a distinctly moody atmosphere; set almost exclusively at night, "Before I Disappear" takes place with bright colors against a shadowy cityscape, echoing the vibrant personalities struggling against the bleakness of everyday experience. With such accomplishments on display, there's no doubting the craftsmanship behind it, even as the movie struggles to assemble the echoes of its earlier iteration into a greater whole.
Criticwire Grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Solid U.S. festival play is guaranteed, but commercial prospects are limited, though it has some potential in digital markets due to the existing fan base for the original material.
Read more coverage of the SXSW Film Festival here.