Review: BEFORE THE FIRE Disappoints More Often Than It Engages
In director Charlie Buhler and writer-performer Jenna Lyng Adams’ uneven, genre-bending survival-thriller, Before the Fire, the world as we're come to know it doesn’t end with a familiar bang or whimper. It doesn’t even end with a cathartic, transformative fire, though Before the Fire opens and closes with the fire of the title. It ends, like ours might, with a global pandemic, a new, lethal flu-like virus that figuratively, if not literally, stops the world, closing down airports, limiting travel in, out, and around the country, forcing the government to declare martial law, ultimately leading to a shortage of resources and the proverbial “every man, woman, and child for him-, her-, or themselves” scenario. Given that whole ongoing, possibly never-ending pandemic thing, it’s a scenario that hits way too close to a quarantined home. It’s timely but perhaps too timely. (There’s something to be said for escapist entertainment, especially in the middle of a pandemic without a clear end in sight.)
When we first meet Ava Boone (Adams), a popular TV actress, she’s unsuccessfully attempting to leave Los Angeles with her longtime boyfriend, Kelly Rhodes (Jackson Davis), a photojournalist. Ava and Kelly are the rarest of rare LA couples: They met, likely fell in love, and moved to LA from a small town in South Dakota. When the government grounds flights in or out of LA, Kelly convinces Ava to take a private plane instead. He also lies to Ava, leaving her to take the flight alone while he departs for an assignment in Atlanta, Georgia to cover the CDC. Ava seems to be deliberately deferential, accepting Kelly’s paternalism, not to mention outdated gender norms, without question. It’s a dubious choice, but one apparently made by Buhler and Adams to give Ava the first stop on what will be a contrived, unsatisfying character arc.
There’s another reason Ava doesn’t want to return to South Dakota. It’s not Kelly’s younger brother, Max (Ryan Vigilant), a full-time farmer and champion-level brooder, or Kelly and Max’s mother, Maddy (Lisa Goodman), who greets Ava with seeming reluctance. Ava’s near-panic attack at the possibility of returning home traces back to a fraught relationship with her father, Jasper (Charles Hubbell). He’s not, however, a typical Midwest father with an authoritarian bent. He’s an out-and-out psychopath. The breakdown of the social order offers Jasper the perfect opportunity to let his inner dictator out to play. Once he discovers Ava has returned to South Dakota, he becomes obsessed with forcing Ava to rejoin his family.
As co-filmmakers, Buhler and Adams purposely leave many ― far too many for the average viewer’s taste ― questions unanswered, including, but not limited to whether Jasper’s abuse of a pre-stardom Ava escalated beyond mere threats of violence into something darker. Characters act and react non-naturalistically, making key choices dictated by plot demands rather than organic, inherent traits. While Before the Fire rarely looks or sounds less than professional, a credit to Buhler, Adams, and their production team, the limited budget likely played a significant role in an uneven, occasionally frustrating screenplay that’s only partially elevated by Adams’ committed performance as Ava.
Adams' arc as Ava takes her from an air-conditioned apartment in LA to a seasonably warn farm in South Dakota and later, a bleak, frigid South Dakotan winter. Adams makes for a persuasively struggling, rattled survivor, though too often Adams-the-screenwriter lets down Adams-the-performer, forcing Adams to paradoxically fill in the canyon-sized holes and gaps in the screenplay with her performance. Working with cinematographer Drew Bienemann, North Dakota native Buhler crafts a handful of indelible images that stand out as much for Buhler’s eye for visual composition as they do for their rarity in Before the Fire.