Before I Disappear (2014); directed/written by Shawn Christensen
A couple of years ago, I saw a short film at the Tribeca Film Festival called Curfew (My review here.) Only 19 minutes long, I consider it a masterpiece and it was one of my favorite films of that whole year. I loved it so much I sought out the writer/director/star Shawn Christensen and interviewed him about the film. He was wonderful and articulate and we spoke for a long time. He’s so talented. Sometimes the good guys win, and Curfew went on to win the Best Oscar for a Short Film. I was watching the ceremony with two pals, and looked at Shawn Christensen up on that stage and felt so psyched that I had seen it at its premiere at Tribeca, and look where that little film went. Not surprised at all. I was very excited to learn that, riding on the success of Curfew, Christensen turned it into a feature. Before I Disappear is still doing the festival circuit right now, release date TBD.
Curfew told the story of a suicidal drug-addicted guy named Richie, whose life is a total wreck, and one night his sister interrupts his latest suicide attempt via a call coming on the red rotary phone in Richie’s apartment. She is desperate, and pissed off. She needs him to come watch Sophia, her daughter, Richie’s niece. It is clear from the phone call that Richie and his sister are not in touch. At all. “Can you do something right for once?” she sneers at him. Richie, lying in a bathtub of bloody water, listening to his sister bitch him out, considers what she’s asking, and then says casually, “Okay.” He bandages up his wrist and comes to watch Sophia. Sophia is played by a little girl named Fatima Ptacek. She is serious and studious, and stares at Richie, his cigarette constantly dangling, with the dead disapproving eyes of a person who already knows life is messy and who knows that she does not want her life to be messed up at ALL.
Curfew told the story of the night Richie and Sophia spend together. Beautifully filmed and conceived, using cliches and turning them romantic and poetic and original, Curfew is a 19-minute odyssey about a man coming back to life, and a little girl loosening up a bit, and falling in love with her uncle. She needs him in her life.
Before I Disappear takes that central event and opens up the world around those main characters. We learn more about Richie, his sorry violent swirl of a life, where he owes money, where women OD in the bathrooms, where he is beholden to everyone he meets because he just cannot get his shit together. The film also opens up the intriguing world of Maggie, Richie’s estranged sister (played gorgeously by Emmy Rossum). There were hints in Curfew that Maggie, although she lives in a gleaming penthouse, is a mess, too. Before I Disappear explores that. Fatima Ptacek is back as Sophia, only a couple years older now, still serious-eyed and a little bit bossy, a little girl who doesn’t have a father, whose mother is obsessed with her daughter doing well. Sophia has absorbed her mother’s anxiety. “You cannot take me into that place. It’s not a place for kids. I will not go in there. I need to do my homework.” she keeps saying to Richie, as he drags her around the city.
Some of my favorite scenes from Curfew are back: the one-take conversation over French fries. The glorious scene in the bowling alley which made me fall in love with Curfew forever and ever, amen. We are introduced to a couple of peripheral people in Richie’s chaotic life, both of whom are his boss. Only it’s more like being an indentured servant, or a sharecropper, where you can never ever work off your debt. He cleans the bathrooms at two competing nightclubs, one run by a scary muscle-man named Bill (Ron Perlman – who knew the guy had such huge cut forearms and biceps? I didn’t!) and one run by a sort-of friend named Gideon (Paul Wesley, great in his small role).
Some of the larger plots don’t work all that well, but what does work beautifully is the sense you get (that was there in Curfew) that Richie’s life is a series of disasters. He is not so clueless that he doesn’t realize that Sophia is only 11 years old. He’s not partying in front of her, or exposing her to his life. He refuses to take her back to his horrible apartment, filled with junkies, because he just knows … No. No kid should go in there. As the long night goes on, there are moments where his obligations to her and to looking out for her start to trump everything else. It happens by stealth. It happens without the film making a point of you noticing it. There’s a moment where they’re riding the subway, and she’s asleep on his shoulder, and he rests his head on her head. Sophia is not an idealized little girl. She’s an individual. She has dance class, she’s a gymnast, she has a lot of homework, her mother is worried all the time, so she keeps her nose to the grindstone. She looks at Richie, clocks him as a mess, and starts interrogating him on why he keeps smoking, why he doesn’t eat vegetables, why he doesn’t have a girlfriend. The dynamic between these two actors is still such a pleasure to watch.
What the hell happened to Richie to make him like this?
Christensen is a wonderful actor. He’s extremely handsome, but he doesn’t prioritize that in his performance. Richie is on drugs, as well as withdrawing from drugs, so he is sweaty and clammy and anxious. He has a very New York-ish way of speaking, almost Woody Allen-ish, a neurotic speaking-out kind of language, his interior anxiety coming to the surface repeatedly. “Ya givin’ me a headache right now …” he says to Sophia … “I mean, the migraine … ya know … would ya stop …”
There are moments where you worry the film will derail. That he will take Sophia somewhere that they can’t get out of, that the film will turn violent, or make Sophia into some sort of bait. Before I Disappear doesn’t do that. It has a dark heart, but it maintains a light tone. The fear is definitely there, that Richie will do something that will ruin her, but Before I Disappear doesn’t take advantage of it. Sophia’s innocence is already shattered, anyway, because of her mother and her horrible absentee father, and Sophia is doing the best she can to survive her own childhood. Richie starts to realize that she’s the best kid. She’s the best best kid he’s ever met. Top notch. It makes him see his scary sister in a new light. She’s raised the best kid ever!
At the bowling alley he takes Sophia to, he is summoned to go talk to Gideon, who owns the joint. Richie refuses to leave Sophia. It’s 11 o’clock at night at a bowling alley slash night club. So a bouncer comes over to hang out with Sophia while Richie is gone. I, as an audience member, was thinking, “Oh God, please don’t let anything bad happen to Sophia. Come ON.” Richie is gone for way too long, talking to Gideon, but when he returns, Sophia and the gigantic bouncer are found deep in the middle of a card game. Both of them slapping down cards seriously, totally engrossed in the game. They barely look up when Richie sits back down.
That’s Before I Disappear. That’s Christensen’s outlook, his gift, his sensibility.
It’s a corrupt world, but it’s also a kind world.
Like Skeleton Twins, Before I Disappear is ultimately about siblings, and how siblings survive (or don’t) a traumatic childhood. Something horrible happened to Richie and his sister. They were so close. That closeness no longer exists. As the sorry swirl of events unfurls across the screen, you start to get the sense that it is THAT, and nothing else, that has made Richie the way he is. Some wellspring of strength and memory has been cut off from him, he no longer has access to it. What happened to his sister? Where has she gone? Where did I go?
Curfew is still the masterpiece. Something about the short condensed format helped Christensen tell his story with spareness and a taut perfection that contains worlds of deep emotion and hope. Before I Disappear scattered that intensity a little bit, in opening up its story. But still: Christensen is a director and writer (and actor) to watch. He’s the real deal. A major talent.
Watch his shot construction. Watch his inventiveness with framing. Each choice represents a well-thought-out impulse. He doesn’t move the camera just to move the camera. There’s a classic understanding of the “rules” of filmmaking at work here, used with great invention and sensitivity. The music is perfect (Christensen was a musician, too – some of his music is featured in the soundtrack, especially in the key bowling alley scene). Before I Disappear is a story of redemption. Or, at least, becoming dimly aware that redemption is still a possibility. And that, for some people, is all you need.
Goodbye To All That (2014); directed/written by Angus MacLachlan
No, not the famous Joan Didion essay, but the movie. Strange, to pick such a famous title. Kind of like that recent Vanessa Hudgens’ movie called Gimme Shelter. Why would you do that to yourself?
Title aside, Goodbye to All That, directed by Angus MacLachlan (who wrote the wonderful Junebug, and also wrote this) is a beautiful and strange little story about a man named Otto (Paul Schneider). Otto is not a bad guy. He loves his 9-year-old daughter Edie (Audrey P. Scott), loves to participate in road races, has a lot of enthusiasm for things, he thinks his marriage to Annie (Melanie Lynskey) is pretty good, he’s got a good job, you know, he’s doing good! But from the very first scene, when he wipes out after crossing the finish line in a 10k, you get the sense that things are not really … okay with this guy. The next scene shows him careening through the woods on a little open land-rover with his daughter. At least she’s wearing a helmet. They’re having a blast! Until they crash into a tree, and Otto’s foot is so messed up as a result that he may actually have to get it amputated. Annie and Edie walk down the hospital hall together, and Edie says, in a really worried voice, the kind of voice you never want to hear from a 9-year-old: “Why do these things always happen to daddy?”
Goodbye To All That doesn’t really answer Edie’s question but it presents the problem. Otto is accident-prone. If you know accident-prone people then you know the frustration of having to deal with their continual mishaps. Much of it is not their fault. But at some point, accidents occur because the person getting in the accident is not paying attention. What happens when you live your whole life not paying attention to it? Otto honestly thinks he’s paying attention. That’s the beauty of Schneider’s performance. He’s not a jerk. He’s not overtly selfish. But on some cellular level, he is in a fog. And so disasters continue to befall him because he doesn’t think things through beforehand. Other people may bump their head when their little jeep crashes. Otto’s foot is so wrecked he may lose it. The doctor scares the shit out of him, telling him to stop taking runs every day, do you WANT to lose the foot? Otto, though, thinks: Come on, I gotta still take a run every day, how else am I supposed to get exercise?
Otto is a grown man but has somehow missed the memo that life is short and you have to pay attention to it in order to 1. survive it and 2. get the most out of it. So he misses things. In another early scene, right after the land-rover accident, his wife summons him to have a meeting with her therapist. Otto’s reply is a confused, “You have a therapist?” In the meeting with the therapist, Otto is informed that his marriage is over. He is completely blindsided. He wants to talk to Annie about it, but she keeps looking at the therapist who answers for her: “No. This is over. Time to move on.” Otto can’t believe it! His marriage fell apart and he didn’t even notice it happening. Annie is an immovable wall. She doesn’t even want to speak to Otto. Anything he has to say to her should be said through their lawyers. Otto blusters around, “Wait, what??? What? What happened??”
Otto is totally in the passenger seat of his own life. He doesn’t even realize it. He has to move out of his house, all with the busted foot. He suddenly realizes that Annie is starting to restrict his access to Edie. He panics. But then he slowly figures out that the situation is much more dire. Edie doesn’t feel safe with her dad. She sits on the counter watching him cook pasta for her, holding the recipe up and out, basically over the open flame, and you can see Edie take it all in. She already knows that you have to look a little bit down the road with every choice you make, even cooking pasta, and he’s so busy blabbing to her that he’s not realizing the water is boiling over. She has to remind him. Other things happen. His house is broken into and he’s robbed. He starts to date, and he has a series of bizarre encounters with freaky-deaky women he meets online.
There are times when Edie wakes up and hears her father having sex with some lady in the other room. She doesn’t want to stay there anymore. And yet at other times, she bursts into tears and clings to him, “Please don’t leave me, Daddy!” It’s heartbreaking. She senses that something really bad could happen to her father. Something REALLY bad. Otto is completely dazed that his daughter would see him that way.
There’s no real formal structure to the film. It’s a series of unfortunate events, basically. The acting is so strong, and the mood of the film, set by MacLachlan is so sure and steady, that it never loses its way. It’s a character study, my favorite kind of film. Otto is a man who doesn’t understand that he needs to get into the driver’s seat, in moments big and small. His wife is a piece of work, let me tell you, and I couldn’t help but think that Otto dodged a bullet with that broad. But his daughter. There are the real stakes. That relationship is in peril. And what does Otto plan on DOING about it? Can an accident-prone man basically decide to stop having so many accidents? But how is THAT supposed to work?
Goodbye To All That is quiet, sometimes uproarious, and often extremely sad. The young actress playing Edie is so wonderful, her sharp worried little eyes looking around at her father’s life, and knowing … somehow … that something bad is going to happen to her while she is under his care. Otto is so clueless he doesn’t catch it. He doesn’t get it. The film is not didactic. It is not the slow methodical journey towards a man taking responsibility for himself. The film is messier than that. I appreciate its mess. People come and go, they enter Otto’s life and then exit, sometimes screaming at him about something he’s done, all as he looks on, completely baffled.
The final moment of the film, however, the small coda placed on the story as the credits begin to roll, was so poignant that I literally gasped when it came onscreen.
Highly recommended. No release date yet. Still making the festival circuit. But keep your eyes peeled.
Kelly & Cal (2014); directed by Jen McGowan
You guys. You guys. It’s so good. Jonny Weston, as Cal, gives such an extraordinary performance that it is up there with my favorite performances of the year. I had seen him before, as the young surfer kid in Chasing Mavericks, and he was wonderful. He’s unbelievable in Kelly & Cal. And what he is doing is deceptively simple. It’s a difficult role. He makes it look easy and inevitable. Jonny Weston has a jock-ish look to him. He’s thick, he’s muscular, with a handsome face, but it could be termed generically handsome. In the 1980s, he would have been cast as the jerk jock at the high school. Or, hell, even now, he would be perfect as the jerk jock in a letter sweater. But in Kelly & Cal, he gets a role that allows him to show what he can really do.
He has moments of such subtlety, such true listening, that he is able to hold the screen with Juliette Lewis (which, let’s face it, is not easy to do. She’s a phenom, always has been, and it is very difficult to take your eyes off of her). The majority of Kelly & Cal is made up of long scenes between Lewis and Weston and they are, quite frankly, amazing. They’re allowed to play out. The script, by Amy Lowe Starbin (Girl Power!), is intricate, funny, devastating. It all rests on the believability and watchability of these long scenes between Lewis and Weston. You watch a relationship develop.
I went into the film not knowing much about it, so I hesitate to say more. Part of the sheer pleasure in the film is watching how it all unfolds. Cybill Shepherd has a terrific cameo, Josh Hopkins is excellent as Juliette Lewis’ husband, Lucy Owen is brilliant in a very small role as Kelly’s sister-in-law, playing the kind of woman who is bitchy/judgmental as her default personality. You know those women? Lucy Owen nails it. Her every line reading, her every expression … it’s not a vicious caricature. It’s an insightful character study of women who are like that.
But this is Lewis’ and Weston’s film.
Their scenes together are a master class. And Weston is a star. This is a star turn. Not because it’s flashy or overly emotional or even because the character Cal is in a wheelchair. This is a star turn because this Weston kid knows how to act. He knows what he is doing. He is extremely vulnerable to the material. He understands subtext. He knows how to listen, how to think, how to take in what’s coming at him, how to change tack, how to play an objective, how to bring forth the layers of mystery and pain that make up Cal’s life. It is not a self-congratulatory performance. It is deeply grounded. Juliette Lewis has been doing excellent work for decades. My pal R. Kurt Osenlund interviewed Juliette Lewis before August Osage County came out and it is definitely worth checking out. One of the things that so struck me about the interview was the following quote from Lewis:
Here’s the trap: Leading with sex. That’s always what I say. I feel bad for all of these girls who lead with sex. It’s not what I ever led with when I was younger, it’s not what I put forth, it’s not the first energy. I’m incredibly in tune in that way when I’m in a relationship, but I think you’re in for a really tragic surprise if that’s what you’ve led with as an artist, or as a female, because we’re all gonna age. To me, if you’re trying to be a sex object, that’s the lowest-common denominator of what you can aspire to. And luckily, I have really interesting, artistic, quasi-bohemian parents who never validated me in the way of beauty. It was never like, “Make sure you look pretty!” I had parents that always promoted nurturing your voice, or your ability, or what you want to do. And now I look back and I’m proud of whatever groundwork I laid, because it was a conscious effort. I never cultivated an image, which is one of the easier things to do—wearing the right dress, and everything all the young starlets do. I never wanted to be known for what I look like. I almost was insulted if a magazine would talk about my cheekbones, or my lips, or whatever, because I knew it was objectification, and I knew it was going to reduce quality and content when it came to the work.
Yes. Shirley MacLaine said a similar thing about her own career. She was a leading lady, she even got some ingenue parts, but early on, in her early 30s, she started taking “character parts”. She was not afraid to be dowdy, she made a conscious choice to take character parts, even when she was still in the leading lady bucket, because she didn’t want her career to be about youth, or hanging on to youth. She still wanted to be working when she was 80. And look at how that has come to pass.
It takes great guts to resist that call to be the new starlet. Juliette Lewis, after her debut in Cape Fear, was in a state of white-hot stardom and excitement. I remember that time. I remember the kind of press she was getting. She dated Brad Pitt. She was always a kook, though, and didn’t really play by the rules, and her role choices showed that. She has continued to forge her own path. She is always good. She is a chameleon. She can enter into anybody’s psychology. I would never have clocked her for that role in August Osage County and she was fantastic. Here, in Kelly & Cal she plays a woman who used to be part of the Riot Grrrl movement. She was in a band called Wet Nap. They put out ‘zines. They modeled themselves after Sleater-Kinney. They were hot shit. She’s 40 now. She just had a baby. Her husband, whom she met in art school, is now in advertising and he works all the time. He’s moved her to suburbia so they can be closer to his family. She is completely at sea in her own life. She is sleep-deprived, distant, and feels like when her newborn baby cries she “sucks at this”, as she whispers to herself at the changing table.
Then she meets Cal, a kid in a wheelchair in her neighborhood.
And that’s all I’m going to say.
And this is why we need more female film-makers and female screenwriters. They bring their own perspective, not just to women, but to men. It is a welcome change. Perhaps a male film-maker would have had Cal be the lead, our “way in”, and we would see Kelly through his eyes. That’s usually the way it goes. We have so many stories, so so many, about men bucking against the limits of middle-aged life, parenthood, fatherhood, and how lonely and unsatisfied they feel. Some of these films are very good. Two of them are above this review. But the male-point-of-view is so omnipresent that you may actually believe, if you didn’t think about it too deeply, that life really is that way and that way only, and the male viewpoint is the only one one could possibly have, and anything else somehow “diverges” from that default. Male experience is not the default experience. People get sick of hearing about it, but sorry, until things get better, I will continue talking about it, and I will continue to point out shining examples of films that have a more diverse point of view, that include women into the circle, that don’t look at women from the outside.
Kelly & Cal is not just Kelly’s story. It is her story and Cal’s story, but every character surrounding them is also allowed to be three-dimensional. Even bitchy sister-in-law is coming from a place of such pain and resentment that it has literally poisoned her personality. I have been that character. Believe me, it sucks. It would have been so easy to make Kelly’s husband an asshole. He’s not. He’s also clueless, disappointed with how his life turned out, a first-time dad, completely at sea at what to do with his depressed wife who has zero sex drive anymore, and he’s doing the best he can. Cybill Shepherd as the mother-in-law TRULY wants to help. Yes, she is completely invasive and intrusive. But my God, she means well. Everyone here is a PERSON. The story is not so tilted in Kelly’s favor that everyone else is a paper cut-out. It’s a confused world filled with people doing the best they can.
What happened to all those bad-ass Riot Grrrls stomping around in combat boots in 1995? Where did they go? Where do they fit in now? The world actually DIDN’T change because of those Riot Grrrls, even though it felt, at the time, like something new was emerging, alternatives, power, something different from sexuality-driven personae. But then along came Britney Spears and the whole culture went THAT way instead of the Sleater-Kinney way, because everyone seemed to prefer that image of femininity as opposed to the alternatives being offered. But those “girls” are still around. Kelly & Cal is beautiful in that it examines and contemplates that moment in time, the Riot Grrrl moment, so important to those of us who lived through it.
Kelly & Cal is a very sad story, in many respects, but it’s also funny, smart, tender. Disturbing and insightful. Complex.
And Jonny Weston is gonna be huge. At least … if the world were a fair place, he would be huge. I’m betting on it. I look forward to much much more from this kid.
Kelly & Cal is currently playing at the New York Film Festival. It’s also part of the London Film Festival, premiering on October 9. Actual public release dates TBD.