Earning more points for visual panache than emotional truth, writer-director-star Shawn Christensen’s “Before I Disappear” chronicles one long, dark night of the soul for a suicidal screw-up whose need for salvation could only have been made more obvious if the filmmakers had forced him to drag a deadweight behind him the whole time. Which, in a manner of speaking, they have: From the moment our tortured hero gets saddled with a hyper-precocious niece who has a thing or two to teach him about love, responsibility and family, this pseudo-gritty descent into a shady New York underworld reveals its soft, contrived center. Too overwrought to really convince or resonate, yet assembled with enough flair to work as a solid calling card for its debuting helmer, this feature-length expansion of Christensen’s Oscar-winning 2013 short, “Curfew,” should continue to make festival inroads after its audience-award win at SXSW. Theatrical prospects look niche-y.
So burned out and beaten down by life that he can’t even commit to offing himself properly, Richie (Christensen) is introduced lying in his own lightly bloodied bathwater when the phone rings (a giant red rotary phone, in one of the pic’s few anachronistic touches). It’s his older sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), to whom he hasn’t spoken in years: Wasting no time on niceties, she informs him that she’s been held up by some unforeseen emergency, and demands that he get off his sorry ass and pick up her young daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek).
Granted this unwelcome reprieve, Richie duly fetches Sophia, a studious, unusually articulate prep schooler who treats the uncle she barely knows with curt indifference. Neither one can wait to be rid of the other. But when an increasingly frazzled Maggie reveals she’s being forced to spend the night in jail for initially undisclosed reasons, Richie is forced to bring his niece along with him as he bounces from one stylishly lit, highly kid-inappropriate venue to another. Chief among these is the seedy club where Richie, a janitor, discovered a woman’s body in a toilet stall the night before — an incident that places him in a tough spot with the club’s coolly menacing owner (Ron Perlman, nicely underplaying), as well as with his other boss, a hot-tempered bowling-alley manager (Paul Wesley, overdoing it).
There’s an awful lot of plot for a movie that unfolds over a roughly 24-hour period, and despite or perhaps because of how neatly everything snaps together, virtually none of it rings true – not the story’s other dead woman, a beloved girlfriend whose untimely demise explains most of Richie’s suicidal impulses; not the vague domestic skirmish that conveniently lands Maggie in jail for the story’s duration; and certainly not the calculated redemption promised by Richie’s reluctant-babysitter act. Piling on the misery-laden subplots in scene after angry, overamped scene, “Before I Disappear” is the sort of movie that can’t stop reminding you how cruel the world is and how messed up its people are, to the point where its bludgeoning cynicism feels no more authentic or lived-in than the glimmer of hope that suddenly breaks on the horizon.
Although the actors seem to have been given direction mainly along the lines of “Let’s try that again, only this time, more abrasive,” they’re strong enough to realize some effective moments, usually when they’re allowed to lower the volume. That goes for Christensen himself, who holds the screen sympathetically enough and is usually the quieter, more reactive figure in any given two-character exchange. Rossum, who spends most of the picture belting like a type-A scold, finally works her way to a silent, tearful moment of catharsis, while Ptacek (“Dora the Explorer”) proves disarming enough to overcome Sophia’s formulaic wise-child conception, her initially frosty interaction with Richie thawing by incremental degrees.
If Christensen’s storytelling would benefit from a measure of dramatic restraint, his filmmaking chops show unmistakable skill; the New York-lensed production feels smooth and assured on a technical level, and is distinguished primarily by the ripely atmospheric, saturated colors of d.p. Daniel Katz’s widescreen cinematography. Indeed, “Before I Disappear” is at its strongest on those rare occasions when plot and dialogue drop away entirely — as when Sophia performs a surreal dance number in the middle of the crowded bowling alley, briefly losing herself in a dreamlike alternate reality that speaks more movingly to the character’s inner state than any histrionics possibly could.