Shawn Christensen’s extraordinary short film Curfew won the Best Live Action Short Academy Award last year and deservedly so. I had heard in many circles that it’s one of the greatest short films ever made, and I was in immediate agreement after finally being able to get my hands on a copy. Before I Disappear is the feature length adaptation of that same film, also written, directed, and starring Christensen. Winning an Oscar certainly gets you some buzz and potential funds for additional projects. That appears to be the case with Christensen, who sought to use his good fortune to expand on the themes he explored with Curfew in full form.
The idea of working with an Oscar-winning director is something that actors are obviously drawn to and was likely a factor that helped Christensen land B-listers Emmy Rossum, Paul Wesley, and Ron Perlman. Returning from the short film are, of course, Christensen and scene-stealer Fatima Ptacek (Dora the Explorer). Ptacek reprises her role as Sophia and is equally impressive the second time around (just a bit older). She again plays the niece of Richie (Christensen), her suicidal uncle whose plans to end things are suddenly disrupted by his sister’s (Emmy Rossum) request for him to take care of Sophia while she deals with legal issues.
Some initial reviews have complained that the essence of the short did not carry over to a 93-minute running time, but I strongly disagree. The additional story lines fit well and pushed the plot forward nicely. However, this is a dark character study that is not completely reliant on plot points, a welcomed relief from mundane Hollywood cliches and stereotypes. The film also presents some stellar performances from actors who have mostly worked in television (at least recently). Paul Wesley’s Gideon character, who did not appear in the short version, stood out as a highlight, and Wesley’s performance was intense and complicated. Ron Perlman is equally impressive as Bill, a nightclub owner who sees himself as a father figure to Richie, or at least that’s how he sells it to keep Richie quiet when certain unnamed events go wrong. The story lines of Gideon and Bill intersect brilliantly, raising the level of tension to new levels. We also see an extension of the role of Richie’s sister Maggie, who deals with an abusive ex-husband and gets into the relationship trouble that ultimately leads to Richie to putting off his suicide and finding a connection with his niece.
Luckily, the film is not all doom and gloom, and Christensen provides moments for the audience to exhale. The beloved bowling alley dance scene (that so many loved from Curfew) remains but on a slightly more epic scale, and Richie even meets the grim reaper (literally), in one of several comedic moments. In the end, Before I Disappear is a bleak film that is not devoid of humor, silver linings, and (potential) happy endings … and it’s also one of our favorite films of 2014.