When a movie begins with a man in a bathtub clutching a bloody razor blade and a phone ringing in the distance, it's difficult to turn away. It's also difficult to expect the movie could possibly go anywhere pleasant, let alone anywhere that makes you laugh. But the phone keeps ringing and the man comically tugs it across the room to answer. A frantic voice on the line, his estranged sister's, begs him to pick up her daughter from school since she's mysteriously unable to do so. "I know you're not doing anything important," she proclaims with no clue what she’s just interrupted. Despite the bleak and utter hopelessness of the scene, the look on the man's face and his shrugged "okay" in response makes you laugh. Figuring he can finish killing himself later, he tapes up his bleeding wrist and goes to pick up his niece with whom he'll spend his remaining few hours wandering the streets of New York City.
Shawn Christensen wrote, directed, and stars in Before I Disappear as the down-and-on-his-way-out Richie stuck babysitting his niece, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), while her mother spends the night in jail. The feature is an expansion of Christensen's Academy Award winning short, Curfew, which focused primarily on the bond between Richie and Sophia. While their relationship remains the foundation of the feature, we're given more background on Richie via his voice-over of the suicide note he’s now constantly rewriting. Still mourning the death of his girlfriend, Vista (Isabelle McNally), Richie's been slowly killing himself with drugs and has decided to speed things along. These insights into his state of mind underline the significance of Sophia's appearance in his life at this particular moment in time. The events take place over the course of one night when Richie’s unfortunate discovery of a dead body puts him in a precarious position between his two formidable employers (Ron Perlman and Paul Wesley). The night continues on a tour of Richie's lonely and isolated existence with eleven-year-old Sophia in tow and while we’re initially concerned for her safety in his company, we soon realize how much better off he is in hers.
Sophia is very much a mirror image of her Type A mother, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), who escaped the path her brother continued down when they were teenagers to provide a better life for her daughter. Providing that life meant keeping her away from her misguided and irresponsible uncle. When they first meet, Sophia doesn’t think very highly of Richie and he assumes it's because her mother told her all about him. Given that it's his last night on Earth he’d like to change her opinion of him, but she has no intention of letting his pathetic attempts distract her from her studies. However, she’s quick to assess his need for approval and after his many endeavors to find common ground she finds herself warming up to him.
Despite all of Richie's faults it's these interactions with Sophia that reveal his true nature. Like her, our initial impression is that he’s an untrustworthy junkie, repeatedly exposing her to unsavory people and places with little concern for her well-being. Yet, also like her, we find ourselves caring for him when he goes out of his way to share flipbooks he used to draw, that her mother always loved, of a cartoon character named Sophia. It's apparent that Richie is moved by the prospect that his sister named her daughter after this silly cartoon he created when they were kids. It awakens some semblance of hope in him that there might still be a connection between them. His inherent decency is heartbreaking in these moments where it's obvious how hard he’s trying to connect with Sophia. He gets more than he bargained for, though, once the ice is broken and she becomes relentless with her suggestions on how he should change his life and take better care of himself. Not used to having someone around who cares, Richie is surprised to find that outside of her annoying approach it's not at all unpleasant, although inconvenient considering his plans.
Christensen avoids the path you might expect a story like this to take tand delivers something visually compelling enough to stay with you. The remarkable style of cinematographer Daniel Katz pulls you into every scene, triggering your senses to the stale and unpleasant atmosphere of each location. One of the more dreamlike sequences is representative of Richie's hallucinations—made plausible by the fact that he took a handful of pills and has been losing blood all night—giving way to the most unforgettable scene of the movie. Christensen’s musical background with the band stellastarr* also comes in handy here, as he contributed the song "Sophia So Far" for the best bowling alley dance sequence since Christina Ricci’s in Buffalo 66. The rest of the soundtrack features a variety of indie artists, along with David Bowie, Billie Holiday, and The Animals. The movie is filled with sights and sounds that will certainly capture your attention.
What captured and continues to hold my attention about Before I Disappear is that it does something I haven't seen in many movies that deal with suicide—it gives Richie's loved ones the chance to save him. While this concept may be too far-fetched or sentimental for some viewers, as someone who will spend the rest of my days wishing I’d reached out to a friend when it could have made a difference, it's a sentiment I truly appreciate. After an emotional confrontation with Maggie that reveals just how much her absence has affected him, Richie returns to the bathtub to finish what he started. Then the phone rings. His sister's voice on the line offers him something to look forward to tomorrow. What Richie does remains his choice, but the optimism that a little love and support could actually save someone from their negative outlook on life is what I find so endearing about this moment. For all its dark humor and dire situations, Before I Disappear conveys that a little forgiveness and a little time with someone who cares can bring a little hope before it's too late.
Before I Disappear is currently streaming on Netflix. Shawn Christensen's second feature, Sidney Hall, will premiere at Sundance this month and stars Logan Lerman, Elle Fanning, and Blake Jenner.