For all but the biggest cinephiles, the Academy Awards shorts categories can feel like a game of chance, seeking to throw off viewers’ shots at winning the office Oscar pool. Shawn Christensen’s “Curfew” picked up the prize for 2012 in live-action short, and his film has been expanded into the full-length “Before I Disappear.” The feature gains a few recognizable faces and roughly 80 minutes in the translation, while it loses some of its charms, proving that sometimes less is more.
Depressed and deep in debt, Richie (Christensen) is in the midst of a suicide attempt when his estranged sister Maggie (Emmy Rossum) calls in a panic. She needs Richie to pick up her 11-year-old daughter Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) from a recital and keep an eye on her for a few hours. Richie reluctantly agrees, but a few hours turns into a day. Richie takes Sophia across New York City, sharing both late-night bowling and his aggressive boss’ Chinese takeout. Despite Richie’s mindset, it’s not as dour a premise as it might be (and neither is it as schmaltzy as “St. Vincent“). The film pulls jokes from sometimes surprisingly dark subject matter that got more than a chuckle or two out of us.
Meanwhile, Richie struggles with his inner demons, as he gets to know his niece. Hallucinations and dreams of his lost love occasionally break through Richie’s fog, as do moments of real life. In addition to his odyssey with Sophia, there’s a lot going on here: an angry debt collector is calling him, his suicide attempts threaten to be successful, one boss (Ron Perlman) wants him to forget an incident at his club and the other (Paul Wesley) thinks Richie knows about his girlfriend’s disappearance–which he does. It’s a lot to pack into 99 minutes, but the expanded plot only seeks to take away from the film’s heart: the relationship between the uncle and his niece.
“Before I Disappear” has a number of merits, but taken as a whole, it is overly precious and seems eager to check off boxes against the quirky indie film rubric. Its marketing – in particular its trailer – offers little to set it apart and instead touts its precocious kid, searching protagonist, late-night stumbling through New York City and shots of characters riding the subway. The film itself doesn’t bring much more to the table, giving viewers a sense of déjà_vu throughout it.
However, it does feature some strengths. Prior to the film, Christensen was more famous for his work as a musician as the frontman for stellastarr*, and his background shows in a solid soundtrack featuring David Bowie and the Animals. The interplay between Christensen and Ptacek feels genuine, thanks largely to great casting for the role of Sophia. Ptacek played the young girl in the short version of the story, and she nicely walks the line of being precocious without falling into annoying territory here. Christensen is at his best with her, though some of his other scenes left us questioning if he were perhaps trying to do too much in directing, writing, producing and starring in the film. Meanwhile, Rossum – by nature of her part – is in the film far too little. She’s adept at portraying Maggie’s desperation, without feeling like she’s treading in the same water as her “Shameless” character. Brief appearances from the always welcome Richard Schiff and Fran Kranz beef up the cast list, but they’re almost too distracting.
Christensen’s New York City is a town made of back rooms, basements, lobbies and restrooms. There are more old-school telephones (and destruction of said telephones by Richie) in “Before I Disappear” than probably exist in the five boroughs. Somehow the film feels at once like a real picture of the city and its surreal, dark mirror image, and we credit the excellent cinematography from Daniel Katz. Whether a scene is mired in the gutter or features a hallucinated, choreographed dance sequence, each image is gorgeous. Katz’s work elevates the whole film, polishing Christensen’s first feature. However, some images and scenes feel shoehorned in, as though they were something Christensen thought would be cool one day before he wrote the script for the film. “Before I Disappear” isn’t a bad freshman effort, but it doesn’t offer anything to set it apart from dozens of other indie dramedies. [C+]