'Before the Fire': Film Review

Before the Fire - Publicity Still - H 2020
Drew Bienemann
A timely setting adds some appeal to this quiet survival drama.

Charlie Buhler's directing debut is set amid a nationwide flu lockdown.

Probably no film project should be called "lucky" in April of 2020, but a couple come close — like Charlie Buhler's Before the Fire, a drama set in a flu-struck world bearing at least a couple of similarities to the one we're suddenly living in. The story of an Angeleno who gets stuck waiting out a pandemic in the rural community she fled years ago, it starts off with moments provoking a nearly uncanny sense of recognition. Rather than build to the kind of cathartic scares so many of us are currently seeking in Contagion and other thrillers, though, this drama gradually leans more toward woman-in-peril vibes in a setting whose ingredients start to feel less timely than generic. The earnest directing debut, written by its star, risks suffocating under grim seriousness before an apocalypse-ready audience can discover it.

Writer Jenna Lyng Adams stars as Ava, who changed her name from Amanda when she started acting. She and boyfriend Kelly (Jackson Davis) left South Dakota for L.A., where she was cast on a cheesy werewolf TV series and he became a journalist. Now, with most of the country in the grip of a deadly flu, Kelly makes a paternalistic gesture the film never questions: He tricks Ava into getting on a small plane by herself, sending her to supposed safety back home while he takes a reporting assignment in Atlanta.

Compounding the betrayal, he's sending her to stay with his family (who dislikes Ava for reasons we don't understand) while trying to avoid her own, with whom she has unexplained bad blood. On second thought, maybe it's only Kel's brother Max (Ryan Vigilant) who has a problem with her; but, as the brothers' mother (M.J. Karmi) pushes Max to accept her help with farm chores, his iciness soon melts.

Ava settles into the work, impressing Max enough that we begin to anticipate a love triangle. But then our heroes cross paths with locals who feel it's time to start a militia — and who seem to be assembling behind Ava's father (Charles Hubbell). Whether this frighteningly determined man beat or molested his child, or did something else entirely, Ava wants nothing to do with him; he, on the other hand, is set on bringing her home.

As this dynamic develops, the movie's reminders of its specific pandemic setting fade. Now we're in a flavor of end-times seen so often in recent indie cinema we take it for granted: Shortages of certain supplies, like Kel's mother's insulin, prompt risky behavior; those who have prepared for the collapse of civilization (by, say, building a solar panel rig) have unwittingly made themselves targets. Any dire circumstance becomes a reason for a real villain to take what he already wanted.

Here, the film approaches a straightforward tale of violent family trauma and the long shadow it casts. Performances aren't consistently strong enough to enliven the action through the genre mechanics of its final act, with macho standoffs and uncertain hostage swaps; and those expecting some revelations about what ever happened between father and child will go home wanting. The only guarantee viewers get is there in the title, a promise of transformative destruction.

Production company: Madfire
Cast: Jenna Lyng Adams, Jackson Davis, Ryan Vigilant, Dakota Morrissiey, M.J. Karmi, Charles Hubbell
Director: Charlie Buhler
Screenwriter: Jenna Lyng Adams
Producers: Jenna Lyng Adams, Charlie Buhler, Kristen Murtha
Director of photography: Drew Bienemann
Production designer: Palmer Schallon
Editor: Brian Denny
Composers: Adam Robl, Shawn Sutta
Venue: Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival (screened online)

90 minutes