Before The Fire

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Before The Fire
"There's a lot that goes unspoken here." | Photo: Dark Sky Films

Living under lockdown conditions during the coronavirus pandemic has been tough on a lot of people, but perhaps none more so than those suffering domestic abuse. Whilst others may think of home as a refuge, the safest place to be, it doesn't always work out that way.

Made when Covid-19 was just a twinkle in its progenitor's nucleotides, Charlie Buhler's debut feature is set during an imaginary flu pandemic (also likely to hit us sometime during the next couple of decades) and opens as panic hits Los Angeles. With quarantine measures being imposed, people are desperately trying to escape before they miss their chance. Ava (Jenna Lyng Adams) planned to escape with her boyfriend Kelly (Jackson Davis), but they arrive at the airport just as passenger flights are grounded. Subsequently, wanting to stay in the city to work as a cameraman, he tricks her into getting onto a private plane alone, out into the middle of nowhere - the small town where they both grew up. There, she will find sanctuary of a sort with his family - but it won't be long before her presence is noticed by her own father (Charles Hubbell) - a man she was willing to do almost anything to escape.

Copy picture

There's a lot that goes unspoken here. The echo of Kelly's betrayal weighs heavily throughout. He delivers the usual line - he needed to know that she was safe - but he doesn't seem to have considered her needs, or paid serious heed when she told him just how unsafe their hometown was for her. The very fact that she loved a man who treated her this way hints at how little she has encountered of love in her life. We never find out exactly what happened in her childhood, but her father's aggression is apparent the first time we meet him, not least because he's heading up a gradually developing town militia, ready to keep out possibly infected strangers. He sees Ava as his possession, wants her back. She would rather stay in a household where, at first, it's clear she's not really wanted, perhaps because of the trouble she brings, though Kelly's ailing mother (MJ Karmi) reaches out and tries to help her feel at ease - as well as finding farm work to keep her busy.

In the middle of all this, an unexpected thing happens. Ava develops a strong bond with Kelly's brother Max (Ryan Vigilant), a man whose kindness, intelligence and general human decency give her a taste of something she hasn't known before. It's an isolated pocket of brightness in the middle of a film that's about to get much darker, seemingly contrived to make us think we're watching something different - and rather more interesting - than we eventually get.

Whilst these complicated family dynamics are playing out, little things are happening in the background - things that might have been more jarring in pre-Covid days but seem less remarkable now. Supplies of various things are running low. State authorities are making mistakes, People are breaking quarantine, and a growing climate of paranoia is making mercy more expensive. In the insular climate of the town, it's also bringing violence to the surface.

The latter part of the film descends into familiar cinematic territory: overt societal breakdown and men with guns using force in preference to any other form of interaction. It's a world that might be easier to navigate for Ava than for most people, but only if she can shake off the bonds of habituated terror. Adams tries to make something of this but - as scriptwriter - doesn't give herself enough room to manoeuvre. It's a disappointingly routine conclusion to a film that showed more intelligence earlier on. There are a lot of interesting ideas here about violence and control and one hopes that she and Buhler might move beyond a reductionist, cynical approach now that other filmmakers are starting to offer bolder visions. Perhaps another time. There's still a lot to admire en route to this.

Reviewed on: 12 Aug 2020
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Before The Fire packshot
When a global pandemic forces a TV actress to escape to her rural hometown, an intruder from her past proves as dangerous as the encroaching virus.

Director: Charlie Buhler

Writer: Jenna Lyng Adams

Starring: Jenna Lyng Adams, Jackson Davis, Ryan Vigilant, Charles Hubbell

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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