Before I Disappear

Not Rated {3.5 out of 5 stars}

Perhaps you’re like me and you love getting out to the cinema during a long holiday weekend. Perhaps you also love being lazy, as I also do. Maybe you’ve just done your first wave of shopping and are fed up with all the crowds and traffic and just want to sit home and relax. How about the best of both worlds? Why not stay in and check out IFC Films’ latest indie feature Before I Disappear, released simultaneously in limited theaters and for rent on iTunes and video-on-demand services?

You might not have heard of Shawn Christensen’s directorial debut, but it has a lot going for it. For one, it’s based on his Oscar-winning short film “Curfew.” This year, Before I Disappear turned heads at SXSW, taking home the film festival’s Audience Award. So, it’s got a few accolades, but is it going to hold your attention long enough to keep you from minimizing your iTunes window and checking out pictures of leftovers on Facebook? I’d like to think it is.

Christensen also wrote the screenplay and starred in Before I Disappear, a sort of dream-like journey through the streets of New York City. He plays the role of Richie, a man so down on his luck that when we first meet him, he is lying in a bathtub full of water, stained red with his own blood. A lifelong loser, Richie has decided to take his own life, but his suicide is interrupted when his telephone rings.

Richie’s sister Maggie (Emmy Rossum) is on the other end of the line. They are polar opposites: Richie has battled addiction and works sketchy jobs, while Maggie has a successful career, a lavish New York City apartment and a daughter to look after. The two siblings haven’t spoken in years, but Maggie is in dire need of help. Though it’s not initially clear what’s wrong, it’s obvious Maggie is in some kind of serious trouble and she’s calling upon Richie to pick up her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek, reprising her role from “Curfew”).

To call Sophia “haughty” would be putting it mildly. When we’re first introduced to her, she’s in a school auditorium reading an Emily Dickinson poem aloud, which she recites in English and then again in Mandarin. She has little patience for Richie’s lethargic demeanor, his nasty habits (he’s a chain smoker) or his disheveled appearance. Of course, through various trials and tribulations, the two eventually form a bond that Richie hopes is strong enough to restore his will to live.

Before I Disappear often falls guilty to the vicious pulling of heartstrings. Christensen mopes around like a beaten dog for much of the film; however, there is something about him that is likable. He evokes a more relatable and amicable version of Vincent Gallo’s Billy Brown from Buffalo ’66, which shares Before I Disappear’s surrealistic quality. Richie is a grimy ne’er-do-well, much like Brown, but he doesn’t project his anger on others. Instead, he takes it out on himself. Sure, Richie can be a bit “woe-is-me” at times, but he genuinely seems to want to be better. It’s that yearning that makes him someone to root for. Paired with Sophia, a cute and precocious young girl who acts like a much older woman, you’ve got the perfect formula for a bona fide tear-jerker.

There are certainly scenes that will test your crying reflex, such as when Sophia discovers the wounds on Richie’s wrist, or later in the film when Richie and Maggie finally discuss the rift that has formed between them. However, there are a few instances of wonderfully dark comedy that break up the somber mood: For instance, Sophia leads a host of extras in a dreamy musical/dance number in a bowling alley just before one of the film’s major turning points. Later on, in another dream sequence, the Grim Reaper sits next to Richie. “Are you here for me?” he asks, to which the Grim Reaper responds by checking Richie’s pulse and shaking his head.

Christensen does well with surrounding himself with Rossum and Ptacek, who both create dynamic characters, whereas he tends to be one-note. Where Christensen succeeds, however, is creating a brooding atmosphere that harkens back to the gritty New York of yesteryear and crafting a tight, poignant script. Before I Disappear is a nice hidden gem in this year’s holiday movie season, and the best part is, you won’t even have to put on pants.