★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
It takes some time for the thriller angles to get going in this pandemic-set outing, but star/screenwriter Jenna Lyng Adams’ performance makes it worth the while.
Directed by Charlie Buhler
Pandemic-set thriller Before the Fire hits close to home in its first act before as its protagonist Ava Boone (Jenna Lyng Adams, who also wrote the screenplay) and her boyfriend try to escape a virus-struck Los Angeles. The film takes a couple of directional turns, however, that give it a bit of an identity crisis.
Ava is tricked by boyfriend Kelly Rhodes (Jackson Davis) into getting on one of the very last possible flights from L.A. to South Dakota, where they are both from and to which Ava never wanted to return. She feels that Kelly’s family hates her, and she has another strong reason to not want to be in that part of the world again — a vicious, violent father Jasper (Charles Hubbell) who never wanted her to leave. Kelly deceived her because he wanted her to fly to the relative safety from the virus that the area of their rural upbringing offered so that he could travel as a photojournalist to heavily devastated areas. The dangers that she faces back home could be far worse than the illness going around, though.
Adams’ screenplay leaves many questions unanswered that probably could have made both the story and the film stronger. From what I gathered, the relationship between Ava and Jasper was never made outrightly clear that they were daughter and father, only hinted at. Whatever happened in the past to make Ava fear Jasper as much as she does is not explained, either. Also, the reason for Kelly’s family hating her is not given any backstory — and doesn’t seem to be necessarily true, either, or at least the dislike doesn’t seem to run very deep. Enigmatic elements and those left to the imagination are one thing, but it is hard to get involved with Before the Fire’s drama when few details are provided for caring for the protagonists.
Before the Fire starts out as a pandemic thriller, with relatable opening sequences that seem not too far removed from what the world is currently going through with COVID-19. It soon turns into a drama, with Ava doing her best to fit in with the Rhodes family members and avoiding her father, before going more of the heroine-in-peril thriller route in the third act.
Where the film works well is in the performances and the direction. Adams gives an outstanding turn as a woman who left her rural upbringing with her boyfriend to seek out a better life together. Ava became an actress in a werewolf-themed television series, and her ability to act serves her well in at least one uncomfortable scene. As Before the Fire goes through its different stylistic tones, Adams invests Ava with a wide range of emotions, nailing each aspect impressively.
Director Charlie Buhler turns in an impressive feature film debut with Before the Fire, blending its different tones and delivering a somber thriller driven as much by family trauma and drama as by the fear and uncertainty that pandemics bring.
Before the Fire, from Dark Sky Films, is now available in virtual cinemas and on digital platforms/VOD.