Making a good short film is difficult. Well, making a good film of any length is difficult, but there’s a particular challenge to the narrative short, as the seemingly obvious approach—“just like a feature-length movie, only shorter”—turns out to be wildly ineffective. On the flip side, expanding an award-winning short into a feature isn’t remotely as simple as “make that same film again, only longer,” though filmmakers seem to be irresistibly drawn to trying. The latest casualty in this regard is Shawn Christensen’s Before I Disappear, which inflates his tight, efficient, Oscar-winning 19-minute film “Curfew” (2012) to five times its original length, telling the exact same story with a whole lot of needless digressions thrown in. The result is predictably, frustratingly bloated and meandering, even as the short’s charms remain largely intact.
As in “Curfew,” Christensen, who wrote and directed, also plays loser protagonist Richie, who’s first seen attempting suicide by slitting his wrists in the bathtub. He’s barely started bleeding, however, when he unexpectedly receives a phone call from his sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), to whom he hasn’t spoken in five years. (This opening weirdly echoes that of The Skeleton Twins—Kristen Wiig’s character in that film is even named Maggie—but since “Curfew” came first, Christensen can’t be accused of plagiarism. It’s presumably just an odd coincidence.) For reasons that don’t become clear until later, Maggie needs Richie to babysit her 13-year-old daughter, Sophia (Fatima Ptacek, reprising her performance from the short). Richie reluctantly agrees, temporarily postponing his demise, and proceeds to take Sophia on a tour of his depressing world, including a bowling alley and a bar where he holds down part-time jobs. Initially, Sophia wants nothing to do with him. As they hang out, however, uncle/niece bonding gradually kicks in, especially when Richie shows Sophia the flip-books he drew as a kid—featuring a girl named Sophia.
This central relationship, given a little more room to breathe, becomes more and more affecting as the film goes on, in part because Ptacek eventually tones down Sophia’s precocious, type-A personality and starts behaving more like an actual little kid. Other scenes carried over from the short, like a fantasy dance sequence in the bowling alley and Richie’s climactic confrontation with his sister, also work well. But it’s easy to identify the material Christensen has added to get Before I Disappear to feature length, because it just sits there on the screen, looking completely superfluous. This modest story didn’t need an episode in which Richie beats up Sophia’s father (a cameo by Joss Whedon regular Fran Kranz) at the music store where he works, nor a subplot involving the heroin overdose of a young woman (Hani Avital) who turns out to be the missing girlfriend of Richie’s boss (Paul Wesley). “Why is Ron Perlman in this movie?” is a question that should never enter anybody’s head under any circumstances, but is unavoidable here. Christensen has demonstrated that he has talent. Now it’s time for him to make something new.