Of all the films premiering at SXSW, the one I most wanted to see was “Before I Disappear.” A gritty drama full of broken characters wading their way through swamp of disappointment, “Before I Disappear” is a film that often gets written but almost never gets made. It can be hard to convince producers that anyone will see a film that basically opens with a series of failed suicide attempts and centers around babysitting a kid. Oh, and the writer is going to act and direct himself. The difference here is the creative force behind the film had an Academy Award casting shadows over his keyboard as he wrote. Well, I don’t know where he keeps it, but Shawn Christensen has one, and decided to expand the Oscar winning live action short “Curfew” into a feature length project. Now I liked “Curfew.” I had some issues with it, but of all the shorts competing for the little gold man that year, it was the one most open for development. The two lead characters had such a depth to them, you felt like you could spend days with them and still be surprised.

Fortunately, given feature length material, both Christensen and Eleven-year-old Fastima Ptacek draw in the audience and do not let them go. The plot is simple. Ritchie has just sliced open his wrists and climbed into a tub when the phone rings. His sister (who hasn’t talked to him in six years) asks him to pick up his niece from her recital – she won’t tell him why, but says ‘Richie can you just do one thing right for a change?’ “It seemed logical to me to expand “Curfew” into a feature film because I could still maintain control over the process,” Christensen says. “Most of my other scripts are larger in scope, and I would’ve had to give up some creative control if I tried to finance them. I wanted this feature still to take place over one night, but with more depth about Richie and about his sister and what she’s going through, and more about Sophia and Richie’s arc. I liked the idea of exploring a young child full of life, and an adult who still has an inner child buried deep inside him. My main priority for the feature was to keep that dynamic throughout.”

Before I Disappear does that, allowing the audience to really experience Richie’s journey as well as giving it a much richer context than the short. I loved the feature in a way I never could the short, because when we arrive at the end, with Richie, everyone has grown, and it feels like one night really can change the lives of all these characters (it’s hard to do that in 20 minutes).
Even more so, the world around them is just as interesting, with Ron Perlman in a great supporting role as the club owner/drug dealer/father figure that Richie find himself at odds with after they find a dead girl in a club bathroom stall. Richie tells Sophie he ‘became a bad person’ but it is clear that that it’s the flawed world around him that he is trying to navigate that is clearly ‘bad.’ The film works so well as a feature, with the grime of Richie’s circumstances encroaching on any joy he might be able to find, a strength not acheiveable in a shorter form. And, if you have seen the short, all the best moments are in there. “The biggest challenge was to reshoot the short film scenes” says Christensen at one of the screenings. Ten minutes of the movie are basically identical in plot and shot composition to the original film (why change something that works) and “trying to recapture the energy of those the same way we had them the first time I thought was pretty challenging.”

One of the most striking scenes, in both the short and again in the feature, is a fantasy dance scene at the bowling alley, where Richie’s niece Sophia begins to strut up and down the bowling lanes to a synthpop song, and everyone else joins in, everyone except Richie. “I know that when I’m really down, I feel like everyone else everywhere is like awesome and has a great life,” Christensen says, “They’re dancing to the music of life … and I can’t figure out why they’re all so awesome and happy.” Trying to capture that for film he wrote two paragraphs into the script along the lines of “and then Sophia gets up and dances and its this whole scene and Richie realizes that he can’t dance.” He gave it to his producers figuring it would be the first thing cut but they loved it and then he had to film it. The scene is a perfect example of what’s special about this film – a filmmaker unafraid to confront his own demons and willing to try a variety of ways to communicate them on the screen. It is in fact what makes Before I Disappear both so personal and so universal.

Before I Disappear took home the SXSW Narrative Competition Audience Award, and I totally agree. It was my favorite film of the week, powerful, funny, dark, joyous, and an example of great adventurous filmmaking.


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