I do believe I might've made a huge mistake in making "Before I Disappear" (2014) the first film I watched at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival. Or maybe the randomosity of my schedule coupled with other conflicts fell into line with exactly what the universe was planning for my experience this year. Either way, everything else I see will be held to a much higher standard because of this brilliant piece of art.
Stemmed from the Academy Award winning short, "Curfew" (2012), "Before I Disappear" follows Richie (writer/director Shawn Christensen), a man who (after hitting a severe depression after the death of his girlfriend) is very much inclined to commit suicide. After facing his end and deciding to take his own life, he receives a phone call from his younger sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum of "Shameless"), begging him to look after her daughter for a few hours. Willing to withhold death for a little while longer, Richie agrees to take care of his niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek of "Dora the Explorer").
What follows is an intensive glimpse into the life of a man who believes he has nothing to lose. Between his shady job with a menacing boss (Ron Perlman of "Hellboy"), a drugged-out friend with a bad temper (Paul Wesley of "The Vampire Diaries"), and an ominous twist that throws everything out of whack, Richie must find a way to hold on to what little life he has left in order to take care of his quick-witted, hard-hitting, alarmingly determined niece.
I'll take a step back to strip this film down a little. Christensen not only wrote and directed this film, but also starred in it. As an actor, the staggering numbness he brought to the character was extremely impressive. What was more impressive, however, were the subtle changes that happened in Richie as the stakes gradually lifted throughout the film. While the character seems pathetic throughout most of it, you find yourself feeling sorry for him at one point and then finally rooting for him later on. The change is so subtle that you as the viewer won't even realize your own feelings are molding for Richie. This is also owed to Richie's brilliant directing and writing. Every character, no matter how little they were on screen, possessed a very clear arc. Each character possessed something in them that you could relate to. Every single moment of this film seemed meticulously planned out and crafted a brilliantly painted picture of a "night in the life" of Richie.
Fatima Ptacek is out of this world. Yes, her "child" character has such a direct maturity about her that will make you laugh and cry, but what Ptacek delivers gives you something more. There is a hidden layer of what this young girl is really feeling under the seemingly cold expression of Sophia. You see how much she is like her mother, tough, unforgiving, and deliberate in everything she does. But there is a moment - a moment of uncertainty where her whole world seems to make a slow descent into oblivion that Ptacek punches you in the gut with a fresh and overwhelming wave of emotion. It was absolutely stunning to see her character mold such a complicated picture.
With the expansion of "Curfew" into a feature, Christensen was able to secure a few familiar names in "Before I Disappear". Emmy Rossum was nothing short of brilliant as Christensen's sister. Her character (so reminiscent of Fiona Gallagher) seems to have the world on her shoulders. The difficultly in asking her problematic brother for help gives us the entire backstory of their relationship in just a few scenes. Paul Wesley was great as Gideon and his performance, coupled with Ron Perlman's fantastic portrayal of Bill elevated each supporting role to a place of importance alongside our leads. The brilliance delivered by the trio was nothing short of astounding.
If I were to place every single minuscule thought I had about "Before I Disappear" into this one review, I'm afraid we'd have a book on our hands. So I'll leave it with this: this film not only slaps you in the face, but will challenge you as an artist, a sibling, a parent, and as a human being in general. Its grittiness drags you back down into a definite realm of "indie film" that is sometimes overlooked and ignored. I encourage you, if you ever get the chance, to find this film. It is more than entertainment; it is an experience.
It screens once more during the Little Rock Film Festival on Sunday, May 18 at 10:30 a.m.
Little Rock Movie Examiner's rating: 5 out of 5 stars
MPAA rating: Not rated
Minimum Age Group: 17+
Language: Fairly strong; generous usage of the "f" word
Violence: A couple of brief scenes of violence that may be slightly disturbing to viewers
Drugs/Alcohol: A lot of drug abuse and references to drug use
Themes/Issues: Drug abuse, Suicide, Depression, Infidelity