Director Charlie Buhler’s feature-length directorial debut Before the Fire is eerily prescient in these COVID-19 times. While the virus doesn’t play a terribly significant role, the film set up a global, flu-like pandemic as its backdrop. It serves as the inciting incident to kick off the story, and while it does become somewhat more relevant as the story goes along, this film is not Outbreak or Contagion. It is in fact much closer to Stephen King’s The Stand, though it forgoes the supernatural elements of that story. However, like that novel, this movie explores how humanity can become desperate after suffering a great calamity.
Ava (Jenna Lyng Adams – who also functions as producer and screenwriter) is a television actress. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband Kelly (Jackson Davis) when the outbreak hits. They attempt to escape the city, but find that all flights in and out of LAX have been cancelled. Kelly arranges a private flight for Ava back to their hometown in the heartland of America. He himself heads off to work with the CDC. We learn early on that Ava does not have a great relationship with Kelly’s family. But the film makes suggestions that staying with her own family is a considerably worse scenario.
I quite enjoyed this film, despite how close to home it felt right now. Jenna Lyng Adams’ offers an assured screenplay, and her performance in the lead role is very impressive. Indeed, she shares wonderful chemistry with many other characters, particularly Kelly’s brother Max (Ryan Vigilant). I didn’t feel that there was a single bad performance in the film. But Adams’ was the one that I latched on to, as Ava is very much our anchor point.
At about 90 minutes, the film opens with a fairly tense sequence. That scene will remind many of us of the moment when we realized that Covid-19 hit our shores and it all became real. The movie then slows down considerably to spend the remainder of its first act building character. It never becomes dull (particularly due to the strong script and performances), but the pacing is slow and methodical.
I have two considerable issues with Before the Fire. We learn early on that Ava’s reticence to return to her ancestral home has something to do with familial strife. The movie’s central villain Jasper (Charles Hubbell) is intimidating enough. But, unless I missed something, we never learn the source of that conflict. We get hints, but that’s all. I’m all for ambiguous villains who are evil for the sake of it. But this being a very human story, I would have liked a little more context.
Further, I did not like the way Buhler and Director of Photography Drew Biennemann shot this film. They utilize a lot of handheld camera work. Their style is unnecessarily frenetic and shaky, particularly in scenes that don’t require it. This technique is very effective for putting the viewer into the scene (films like Saving Private Ryan come to mind), but it’s absolutely not needed here, as this is in many ways a small-town drama. The viewer is not part of the scene, but simply an onlooker.
Still, Before the Fire is absolutely worth watching. It’s tense, well-written, and well-acted. It will likely resonate with anyone who has been experiencing the quarantine and dread we’re all living with right now. It’s a character-driven thriller that I enjoyed. And I’m looking forward to seeing what Buhler and Lyng Adams come up with next.