The moment, when it comes, is utterly sublime in a way I can’t possibly put into words. It’s a late night in New York. Richie (Shawn Christensen) has been asked by his estranged sister Maggie (Emmy Rossum) to look after his 11-year-old niece Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), who is a bit of a type-A handful. He’s not just distracted; he was literally killing himself when the phone rang, and he’s got a million problems and dangers buzzing around him. Desperate, he takes Sophia to a bowling alley, and in the middle of their conversation, a new song blasts over the PA. “Oh my God, I love this song!” Sophia exclaims, and she scurries off and dances down the lane, and the music gets louder, and suddenly bystanders are tapping their feet, and then the people at the bar are shimmying and the bowlers are dancing and Richie is watching all of this in wide-eyed bewilderment and you can’t blame him because holy shit, this movie could go anywhere. It’s the moment when I realized I had fallen for Before I Disappear, a thrillingly audacious new movie that isn’t getting a fraction of the attention it deserves this holiday weekend.
Let it be said that I realize its logline does it no particular favors — the familial phone call at the moment of possible suicide calls up unfortunate memories of Elizabethtown, and the arc of a burnout who realigns via a wise-for-her-years kid is littered with landmines. But those descriptions convey only a fraction of the picture’s narrative and none of its tone, which is an all but indescribable stew of absurd comedy, dark drama, coming-of-age story, and familial heart-warmer, snapped into the framework of a “one long, weird New York City night” story in the style of After Hours. Christensen, who not only stars but writes, produces, and directs (and also composed the song in the aforementioned bowling alley scene), does about a dozen things simultaneously that most movies can’t get right individually.
He expanded Before I Disappear from a 2012 short called Curfew (the bowling alley scene from that version is above), which won the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short Film. It’s not just about his relationship with Sophia, whom he hasn’t seen in over five years and who quickly assesses him, not inaccurately, as a specter who’ll go as quickly as he came. As one might expect from a man on the verge of suicide, he’s got all sorts of trouble: he hasn’t recovered from his girlfriend’s overdose death, he owes money to some troublesome types, etc. Oh, and the previous evening, he found a dead girl in a bathroom stall of the bar where he works, and his boss Bill (Ron Perelman) would like him to kindly forget about it.
Christensen’s semi-hallucinatory style creates a particularly subjective viewing experience — Richie’s just dealing with whatever gets thrown at him, as it comes, and the picture has the same jazzily improvisational spirit. That marriage of story and style allows him to perform the kind of tonal shifts that keep the picture on its toes, from the joy of that semi-surrealistic musical moment to a beat in a particularly sketchy building that acknowledges the real danger Richie might be putting his niece into.
And alongside those extremes is a pair of scenes between Richie and Gideon (Paul Wesley), another of our hero’s occasional employers, and both are little masterpieces of duet acting. You see, Gideon’s girlfriend was the dead girl in the stall, and he’s got a feeling Richie knows something about it, and Richie’s got a feeling that Gideon’s got a feeling. The result is a mirrored set of loaded conversations, one where nothing is said, another where everything is. There’s nothing pat or cliché about either of these characters, or the situation they’re in; the stakes are real, and the threat of physical danger typical to such altercations is coupled with a much more interesting (and powerful) sense of emotional intensity. They both know what’s happened, and they’re both terrified of it, for surprisingly similar reasons.
Shot by Daniel Katz with a keen eye for casual late-night beauty (and with a slow walk-out to “House of the Rising Sun” that’s one of the most Scorsese moments I’ve seen in a non-Scorsese movie, and yes that’s a compliment), Before I Disappear is stylish and cool without breaking a sweat, yet free of the hollow emotional detachment that’s so often associated with those qualities. It’s the kind of movie that could presumably find an audience, but it’s getting an oddly muted release, even for an indie; despite its Oscar pedigree and Audience Award win at SXSW, it’s getting dumped into a crowded, sink-or-swim weekend by IFC (and it’s not even their only release this week). I might not have even heard of it, much less seen it, had it not closed my hometown film festival.
But I did see it, and now I’ve seen it again, and forgive me for doing a bit of missionary work here. Because, you see, this is one of the pleasures of this job: when you find a film that is truly, genuinely special, in the hopes of helping other people make the same discovery, you shout and shout about it, as loudly and as insistently as you can. It’s an original, intoxicating, giddily alive movie.
Before I Disappear is out Friday in limited release and on demand.