A few years ago Shawn Christensen wrote, directed and starred in a short called Curfew, an entertaining and somewhat surreal story of a suicidal ex-drug addict and his precocious niece. It was a rather masterful piece of cinema that went on to win the 2013 Academy Award for best live action short. Now Christensen has expanded the story and added some big name actors to the mix. The resulting film is Before I Disappear, and while it doesn't eclipse the original, it is a really enjoyable feature that features some very good moments and one exceptional performance by its young star Fatima Ptacek.
The film opens with Richie (Christensen) discovering a dead girl in a bathroom stall at the club where he works as a janitor. As a drug addict himself, Richie knows an overdose when he sees one. The owner of the bar is Bill (Ron Perlman), who sends Richie home with a dose of heroin and warns him to forget about the girl. Already mourning the death of his own true love Vista (Isabelle McNally), Richie writes her a love letter/suicide note then gets into the bathtub to slit his wrists. Before he can complete the deed his estranged sister Maggie (Emmy Rossum) calls; unable to pick up her daughter Sophia (Ptacek), she begs her brother to go to Sophia's school and bring her home. Richie postpones his suicide to retrieve his niece, whom he hasn't seen since her infancy.
Curfew began with Richie in the bathtub, and in the original his reasons for suicide were never explained, though his drug abuse was evident if not spelled out. Before I Disappear includes a number of scenes that seem lifted right from Curfew, though in recasting Emmy Rossum as Maggie there were evidently some reshoots. The basic story of Richie and Sophia's blossoming friendship and his eventual redemption is still intact, though Christensen adds an element of danger that was only hinted at in the short film. In addition to Perlman as Richie's boss/dealer, the feature adds The Vampire Diaries' Paul Wesley as Gideon, another shady character in Richie's life who happens to be the boyfriend of the dead girl in the toilet. Another element added in is the character of Vista, who sometimes appears to Richie in moments of delirium as something of a muse and guide. Richard Schiff shows up for five minutes as a lawyer sent to advise the incarcerated Maggie, and though he is virtually wasted in the role, he brought a certain gravitas that made me miss The West Wing, not for the last time.
One of the reasons Curfew was so effective is that the story was perfect for a short film format. Is the expanded story successful as a feature? For the most part it is, though some of the scenes from the original feel shoehorned in and a bit disjointed. Ron Perlman's presence is always welcome though he doesn't really do much but add a tangible threat to the proceedings. Paul Wesley has a lot of fun with Gideon, getting to play unhinged and crazy in a way that he never gets to on The Vampire Diaries. Shawn Christensen and Emmy Rossum are both fine, but the real star, as she was in Curfew, is Fatima Ptacek. Boy howdy, this girl is good. She doesn't step wrong once in the whole film, and really lives up to her promising work in the short. She and Christensen have an easy chemistry, and their relationship is the best part of the movie.
I confess a certain fondness for Curfew that made me more inclined to like this incarnation of the story. It is certainly not perfect, and I'm not sure it is an improvement over the original. That being said, the added details of Richie's story, and the nature of Maggie's situation do nothing but deepen my appreciation for the first film. Before I Disappear is not a great movie, but it is eminently satisfying and never boring.