Film Picks: “Before I Disappear” Delivers Hope To Fever-Dreamers

Image by Rhys Alton
Written by Libby Allen

In Film Picks, Libby Allen takes a look at what’s new, old, weird or revisited in cinema and why it’s worth watching.

The past decade of film history has been rife with the dark and stigmatized underworld of heroine addicts. There’s Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” and Neil Armfield’s “Candy,” to name but a few. Shawn Christensen’s “Before I Disappear” is a darkly humorous semblance of these movies, with a protagonist that mirrors a disaffected attitude, which is quickly becoming the norm in our culture. The film is a feature-length adaptation of the Oscar-winning short film, “Curfew,” in which Christensen takes on the role of writer, director and main character.

“Before I Disappear” is the story of Richie, a 30-something guy with an adorable lack of brains and generally discontent attitude. The film begins with Richie ending his torments over a lost love. The scene is intentionally histrionic and humorous, supported by the multiple drafts of over-analyzed suicide notes to his deceased girlfriend he fervently jots down. As translucent bath water slowly transforms into a rosy pink hue in Richie’s dilapidated apartment, a red phone on his bathroom floor starts ringing.

It seems the audience has to play along with the film’s twisted sense of humor, and try not to immediately question why a man would answer his telephone mid-suicide. While sitting in the increasingly bloody water, Richie listens to his estranged sister (Emmy Rossum) condescendingly request that he pick up his 11-year-old niece, Sophia, from school. Richie, somewhat ambivalently, agrees to the errand. Upon discovering that Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) is far more of an adult than Richie could ever hope to be, we embrace the juxtaposed relationship between the type-A fusspot little girl and the despondent and overwhelmed Richie.

Christensen’s film creates a world of illusory anecdotes that can be confusing. Like when Richie, after failing his first suicide attempt, tries to overdose on what he believes to be sleeping pills, but is actually menopausal medication. What follows is a sequence of befuddling scenes in which Richie, armed with a bird mask and a bow and arrow, attempts to defend himself from an imaginary loan shark, all set to the background music of David Bowie’s “Five Years.” This scene, like others in the film, comes across as overdone. And while Christensen may be accused of theatricals here, we can’t help but chuckle at the comedic despondency of Richie’s plight and the honesty with which it is conveyed.

This movie is predicable if nothing else, with less-than-perfect sequencing and cinematic flow. But that’s irrelevant — it’s the plot that matters here. It’s about all of those nuanced portrayals of relationships, those guttural and seemingly unattainable life lessons, that Christensen portrays so well.

As the story progresses, Sophia and Richie bond. She teaches him about life and about how to be a grown-up, and he teaches her how to be an actual kid. And like all lovable protagonists, we discover that what Richie lacks in common sense, he more than makes up for in heart.

The film takes several odd turns from there. A series of surreal sequences with Sophia dancing down the lanes of a bowling alley quickly turns into an impromptu music video. We’re treated to a fever dream-esque meeting between Richie and his boss (Ron Perlman), the owner of a night club, over the discussion of a dead girl, some Chinese food and uber-sleazy back lighting. The audience is periodically brought back to reality as we realize — or rather Richie realizes — that these hallucinations are merely side effects of the overdose of medication that he consumed earlier in the film. All of these dramatics, both funny and heartbreaking, lead up to the one thing Christensen displays with brazen honesty throughout the film: Richie’s desperate need to be distracted from himself, which is the crux of the whole story.

The movie is incongruous at times, filled with scenes that last longer than they probably should. It’s also peppered with surreal moments that don’t always produce the desired affect. But Christensen has created a jumbled and moving storyline around the things that inevitably shift our lives and influence us most: life, love, loneliness and family. “Before I Disappear” is as depressing as it is consoling and interwoven with a strange, poignant humor.

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