Cinequest Review: Before the Fire
With the world seemingly teetering on the verge of global pandemic, the premiere of Charlie Buhler’s Before the Fire feels particularly ominous, taking place as it does in a disease-stricken America that has just passed the tipping point and appears to be in the early stages of catastrophic free fall. Post-apocalyptic films are a dime a dozen — though this particular offering is really more pre- to mid-apocalyptic, trading on the knowledge that audience discomfort correlates well with proximity to the initial outbreak — but to watch one in the midst of a crisis such as this can amplify one’s unease, cinematic or otherwise. Taking her cues from the best the genre has to offer, Buhler and screenwriter Jenna Lyng Adams don’t spend too much time lingering on the specifics of the contagion, instead using the familiar framework to delve into another oft-depicted source of dread: family. Writer Adams pulls double duty as the film’s protagonist, Ava, the popular star of a hit teen supernatural television show. As the panic spreads and the threat of quarantine escalates, Ava’s journalist boyfriend (Jackson Davis) tricks her onto a flight back to their shared hometown while he stays behind to cover the outbreak. It’s a contrivance that stretches the bounds of credibility, but one that can easily be overlooked as the film quickly settles into an engaging character study of a woman forced by threat of global calamity to confront a family she’s done everything in her power to escape. Adams’ script strikes a nice balance between intimate character moments and propulsive anxiety, and as an actor she exhibits an effective naturalism as she puts Ava through the physical and emotional wringer. As for Buhler, though she is making her directorial debut here, she began her career as a photographer and it shows — aided by cinematographer Drew Bienemann, her eye for shot composition is often stunning, especially for a young director. Add to the mix Brian Denny’s intuitively rhythmic editing work and Before the Fire finds itself as one of the most visually appealing low-budget films this iteration of the festival has to offer. Given their individual talents, Adams and Buhler are well-matched as creative partners, bringing a fresh perspective to a genre perpetually threatening to wear out its welcome. Despite the looming pandemic, this is really a story about trauma — about finding the courage to face the demons in your past and in your present and using that confrontation to build yourself into someone even stronger. By imbuing the film with the constant threat of danger, Buhler and Adams give Ava the opportunity for self-actualization without the need for a compromise predicated on her gender or background. The empathetic storytelling on display is well-realized, and, especially for a first-time director, Buhler has an impressive control of tone — with new talent of this caliber behind the camera, maybe the saturation of the apocalyptic drama market isn’t such a bad thing after all.