Before the Fire (2020) Movie Review: A Timely Thriller that Flames Out

A movie about surviving a pandemic is fitting right now, but this one doesn’t have much going for it.
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There’s a lot that happens in the opening moments of Before the Fire that immediately feels tense and eerie, given the current situation the world is going through. An unknown disease has made itself present, forcing airlines to cancel flights, businesses to offer curbside pickup on what limited supplies they have, and an uncertainty of what’s going to happen next. People flee certain areas that are now considered hotspots, and try to not come into contact with those who may possibly be infected. But the further we get into the slim, 90-minute thriller, the more it feels like there needs to be more to it.

Ava Boone (Jenna Lyng Adams) is an up-and-coming television star that, like so many others, is forced to put everything on hold while she and her journalist boyfriend Kelly (Jackson Davis) try to get away from the deadly virus that has suddenly hit. Kelly’s first thought is to go back to their rural hometown, with which Ava immediately disagrees - given the fact that she has a bad relationship with both his family and her family. Kelly then tells her he has a friend with a private jet that owes him a favor. Thinking that they’re going somewhere where it’s just the two of them, Ava agrees to get on the jet, and Kelly closes the door to stay behind and work a special assignment.

This all happens in the film’s first 10 minutes. While the scene of Ava getting her temperature checked before boarding the plane and Kelly picking up items curbside while the store clerk wears a mask hit close to home, Before the Fire feels like it has a lot it wants to express and explore but only a limited amount of time to do so. We get bullet points that serve as most of the character development, and that leaves the viewer wanting to know more.

No real explanation is given as to why Ava, whose real name is Amanda, has issues with Kelly’s family. His brother, Max (Ryan Vigilant), expresses his dislike for her, to which the mother (M.J. Karmi) tells him to lay off. Max then has Ava help around the house, and he suddenly seems to be OK with her. At one point, it’s as if Adams, who also wrote the screenplay, had the idea to explore a possible relationship with Max and Ava, but that just serves as a little tease.

One of the other things about which Ava was worried was running into her own family. A brief scene between her and her mother (Lisa Goodman) shows there’s bad blood between them, but the movie never says why. The mother then asks for money, which Ava reluctantly gives, and then disappears. Some of the townsfolk are talking about forming a militia, organized by Ava’s father, Jasper (Charles Hubbell), who questions why she’s back in town. And, like Ava’s mother, there’s some bad blood between them, but we don’t know what it is.

Once the sparse, frustrating character buildup is put into play, Before the Fire then focuses on becoming a tale of survival that follows familiar territory and only serves up a few noteworthy scenes. Director Charlie Buhler, making her debut here, proves that she can effectively create tension on a small scale. But it happens so infrequently, and the in-between moments struggle to maintain the viewer’s interest.

While a movie about a pandemic is timely, Before the Fire has very little spark to it. A solid performance by Adams can only do so much, when the rest of the film feels like a “been there, done that” type of thriller that needs more character development to make the viewer understand and care for the motives behind their actions.

Before the Fire releases to VOD on August 14.

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