In Before I Disappear’s opening scene, misanthropic Richie (writer-director Shawn Christensen) slits his wrists and lies down in his bathtub to die. It’s not that he’s lost his will to live so much as he’s run out of options for what to do with his life, as evidenced by his constant revisions of supposed suicide letters that come across like a pitiful call for help aimed at the void, given that they’re addressed to his deceased girlfriend. A call to action surely awaits, and it arrives quite literally in the form of a phone call while he’s wasting away in his bloody bath. It’s his sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), who commands his lazy ass to pick up her daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek), from school and squire her home. Rather than refuse the call, he accepts, albeit with a level of moroseness appropriate to his apparent depression, and the Type-A precociousness of his niece slowly, endearingly chips away at his sarcastic defense mechanism.
This relationship between a deadbeat adult and a self-starting grade-schooler is the emotional backbone of the film, just as it was in Curfew, the 20-minute, Oscar-winning short from 2012 on which it’s based. That film was psychologically light, but endearingly bouncy, suggesting Martin Scorsese’s After Hours reimagined as a cheeky Afterschool Special. Although Christensen successfully enlarges this fractured family’s story, he counteracts it with an irksome subplot revolving around an overdosed dead girl his character discovers in a bathroom stall of the club where he works, pitting him between his friend, Gideon (Paul Wesley), who was seeing the girl, and his boss, Bill (Ron Perlman), who wants the body to disappear. As a sad-sack addict dressed like an indie-band reject, Richie neither looks nor acts like the mover and shaker he supposedly is in this hazily defined underworld, and the entire ordeal comes across like a fatuous means on Christensen’s part to ratchet up the stakes.
When it isn’t behaving as a kids-table version of a crime thriller, Before I Disappear achieves a more palpable sense of urgency in its focus on Maggie’s infidelity—relayed not in explicit pieces of plot, but impressionistic details meshing perfectly with the overall tone—and her daughter’s plight. Lugging Sophia around to places she’s mature enough to know she shouldn’t be, Richie stupidly leaves her alone in a sketchy hallway to retrieve a personal item from a rowdy apartment. And the tears Sophia sheds in this moment are a delicate rendering of her stern shield disintegrating in the midst of this odyssey, revealing her to not be quite as mature as she thinks, while simultaneously causing Richie to take responsibility for his actions. It’s a splendid sequence that was just as effectively conveyed in its shorter predecessor, which marks this feature-length expansion as a paradox of sorts: a satisfying letdown. Even at its most compelling, it remains inconsistent and superfluous, a lesson that sometimes a movie can feel more fully formed in 19 minutes rather than 90.