Writer-director-star Shawn Christensen’s “Curfew” was a minor miracle of a short film. This 2012 Oscar nominee was cynical and bitter, sad and uplifting — and deeply, darkly hilarious — a lot to manage in 19 magical minutes.
“Curfew” earns a feature film treatment titled “Before I Disappear,” with Christensen, his precocious co-star Fatima Ptacek, and a supporting cast that now includes Emmy Rossum, Ron Perlman and Richard Schiff. Expanded and fleshed-out, the short film becomes a somewhat more showy and melodramatic movie, just as moving, just as funny and almost as magical.
We meet Richie (Christensen) in the tub. He’s narrating a letter to Vista, his girfriend.
“I hope this note finds you well. But as these things go, that won’t be the case.”
Richie has a razor blade. Vista is dead. Richie’s planning on joining her. The bathwater turns crimson.
He’s about 30, a junky, and a janitor. Richie’s seen something — a young woman, dead of an overdose, in the toilets he cleans at a club run by Bill (Perlman). Bill tells Richie to forget what he saw, and slips him some “Flora,” a nickname for heroin. Richie lied to his other employer, Gideon (Paul Wesley), who was in love with the dead woman. So Richie figures that’s about enough.
But the phone rings. And rings. And rings. It’s his estranged sister, Maggie (Rossum), who asks a favor in the most profane, judgmental and hateful way. Can you, you worthless, unreliable lout, pick up my daughter from school and get her home?
Richie bandages his wrist, figures he can put off suicide for an hour or two, and staggers, smoking, into young Sophia’s school. She is reciting Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” — first in English, then in Mandarin. She is a uniformed sixth grader, organized, uptight, an overachiever in school and in gymnastics. She is impatient with this stoned stranger picking her up. “There will be hell to pay,” she threatens, if he cannot get her home to do her homework, study for a test and continue over-achieving. And there will be.
The chemistry between these two is electric. Christensen’s eyebrow arches at Sophia’s every insult, as if he is not sure she’s just another of his many hallucinations. He makes Richie soulful and sweet, but given to righteous rages when he feels others are being wronged. Ptacek’s Sophia is the adult, assertive in every situation. They storm into a dinner at Bill’s place, and she sits herself down and digs in with his henchmen. They stagger over to a hipster bowling alley, and she dances to her favorite electronica pop right down the lanes.
OK, maybe it’s whatever drug Richie has popped that has him seeing that.
Through a long, comically tragic New York night, these two bond, we hear the story of how Richie and Maggie grew up and grew apart, and they avoid people who want to collect from him or kill him, or grab her as a way of getting at her mother.
We can guess where this is going, but as with his short film, Christensen fills the sure-to-be-redemptive story arc with surprises. Ptacek, as she was in the short, makes a great foil.
And the addition of Rossum and Perlman to the cast adds pathos and paranoia, guilt and menace.
Christensen may have won the best short dramatic feature Academy Award, but his real prize was the chance to turn some marvelous characters and gripping, gritty situations into a feature length film. “Before I Disappear” was his prize, and as it turns out, our prize, too.
Cast: Shawn Christensen, Fatima Ptacek, Emmy Rossum, Ron Perlman, Paul Wesley, Richard Schiff
Credits: Written and directed by Shawn Chistensen. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:33