'Before I Disappear': Venice Review

Courtesy of IFC Films
Can't vanish fast enough

Writer-director Shawn Christensen stars with Emmy Rossum and young newcomer Fatima Ptacek in this long night’s journey toward hope

Shawn Christensen's Before I Disappear is the second indie entry this year, after Sundance hit The Skeleton Twins, to trace the suicidal central character's path to redemption through reconciliation with his long-estranged sister. This time there's also a precocious niece in the mix. But the darker tone of this movie is a less crucial difference than its crippling absence of empathy or warmth. With nary a likable character in sight until the late arrival of some unearned emotion in the closing scenes, this is a posey, abrasive drama, though one that's stylishly made and acted with more conviction than the script merits.

An expansion of writer-director Christensen's 2013 Oscar-winning short, Curfew, the feature was picked up earlier this year by IFC Films out of SXSW, where it won the narrative competition audience award. Perhaps its self-consciously gritty tour through the murky shadows, saturated colors and throbbing soundscape of New York's hipster demimonde encouraged Austin voters to overlook the contrived plotting and creeping sentiment. Real-world customers might be less forgiving.

There's a strong whiff of the vanity project in Christensen's casting of himself as Richie, who hits rock bottom when he finds a pretty girl dead of an overdose in a bathroom stall at the nightclub where he works. His shady boss, Bill (Ron Perlman), makes it clear that Richie's silence is required, slipping him some free heroin to seal the deal. But even drugs have lost their appeal to him. While in the bathtub with a razor and shallow wrist wounds, he gets a call after five years of radio silence from his agitated sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), who brusquely informs him she's been caught in an emergency and he needs to retrieve her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), from prep school.

While Richie's abortive drafts of a suicide note to his unseen love are heard in voiceovers, Christensen's screenplay, direction and performance provide scant reason to care about the film's protagonist during his repeated attempts to end his life. Late in the film, Bill says to him, "Death isn't just a destination to you. It's a part of you. It's woven into the fabric of your life." But Richie's terminal malaise seems rooted in nothing. He comes across merely as a bored burnout, who at some point develops an unconvincing ethical backbone.

It's equally hard to warm to Maggie. She barks orders and sharp reprimands, barely softening even once we learn she's been detained awaiting arraignment. But 11-year-old Sophia is arguably the most brittle character of the three — an entitled overachiever who recites Emily Dickinson in Mandarin, does dazzling gymnastics routines and views her first acquaintance with her uncle as an annoying distraction from her studies.

There are nagging problems of tone, particularly in the early action when one attempt after another at sly humor doesn't quite land amid all the studied angst. Having the Grim Reaper sit down alongside Richie on a dive-bar banquette, reading a newspaper and chugging a shake, is a glib touch that does nothing to authenticate the main character's despair.

For reasons barely grounded in narrative logic, Richie is forced to shuttle Sophia around to various seedy clubs, bars and eateries, during which he discovers a forgotten sense of family loyalty and the kid rethinks her dismissive initial assessment of him. He also undergoes a crisis of conscience when Gideon (Paul Wesley), his boss at a second job, looks for help finding his missing girlfriend and Richie is forced to lie after recognizing her from a photo.

Very little of this rings true, particularly the formation of the Richie-Sophia bond. The girl is coolly hostile and unflappable at first. Then suddenly she's teary and frightened, then a judgmental scold and finally sweet and affectionate, with no fluidity to smooth those shifts. Cutesy flourishes like an impromptu dance interlude at a bowling alley don't help. Rossum has the most limited screen time, but she comes closest to registering real emotion in late scenes when Maggie is forced to reconsider her damaged relationship with her brother.

However, the film has more sheen than substance. Daniel Katz's widescreen cinematography pulses with color and sinuous movement, while the dense soundtrack lifts from Lakme and Carmen, David Bowie, Billie Holiday and contemporary bands like Tame Impala and Papercuts, often slipping into a music-video vernacular. Christensen has talent as a director, but he might have been better off building a new story and characters from scratch rather than padding existing ones that fit snugly enough into a 20-minute package.

Production companies: Fuzzy Logic Pictures, Wigwam Films, in association with Strongman
Cast: Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Emmy Rossum, Paul Wesley, Ron Perlman, Richard Schiff
Director-screenwriter: Shawn Christensen
Producers: Damon Russell, Lucan Toh, Shawn Christensen, Paul Wesley, Terry Leonard
Executive producers: Christopher Eoyang, Nick Harbinson, Oliver Roskill, Emily Leo
Director of photography: Daniel Katz
Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Kaela Wohl
Editors: Andrew Napier, Shawn Christensen, Damon Russell
Music: Darren Morze
Sales: Electric Entertainment

No rating, 98 minutes