‘Curfew’: Life and near-death in New York, in 19 incredible minutes

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Shawn Christensen and Fatima Ptacek. ()
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Established by Robert DeNiro, the Tribeca Film Festival has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2012 festival goes from April 18-29. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Some short films are one-trick ponies. Some lead up to an inevitable punchline. Some are gimmicks. Some feel like sketches for a feature-length film.

But there are some shorts, the rare ones, that feel complete in and of themselves, that present a three-dimensional and fully realized experience, with the depth and complexity of a short story by Chekhov or Lorrie Moore. While such shorts may leave you wanting more, there is really nothing more to add. Some things are perfect as is.

Curfew, a short written and directed by Shawn Christensen, massive in scope and yet exquisitely detailed, is perfect.

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In the opening scene of Curfew, we see Richie (Christensen) lying in a bathtub, having just opened his veins with a razor blade. His impending death is interrupted by a phone call from his sister, Maggie (the heartbreaking Kim Allen). Maggie's voice, on the phone, sounds harried, annoyed, and desperate. She needs Richie to come over and watch her 9-year-old daughter, Sophia.

"You know that you are the last person I would ever call, but I know you're not doing anything important, and I am really in a bind ..."

Richie, lying on his back in the bloody water, stares at the ceiling listening to his sister and then says, in a completely normal voice, as though he is not in the middle of committing suicide, "OK."

With bandaged wrists, and ever-present dangling cigarette, Richie picks up Sophia, played by the extraordinary young Fatima Ptacek. They meet up in the elegant stairwell of her mother's apartment building.

"I'm your uncle Richie," says Richie.

Sophia stares at him.

"I don't care," she replies.

Shot all over New York, Curfew is the story of a couple of hours in the life of uncle and niece. We don't get the whole backstory, but we get enough. Richie, obviously a mess, has been barred from ever seeing Sophia due to some "accident" in the past when he was watching her. He's a drug addict and a depressive, and lost in his own dark world.

Sophia, attached to her video game, at first treats Richie with an officious bossiness, giving him a dead-eye glare when he tries to engage her in conversation.

"What does your mom say about me?" Richie asks.

"She never talks about you," replies Sophia.

They go bowling. They eat french fries. Richie tells Sophia that he used to make flip books when he was a kid, starring a little cartoon character named Sophia.

"Your mom thought they were a real hoot," says Richie. "I don't know if we knew anyone growing up named Sophia. I always wondered if your mom named you after that cartoon character."

Sophia shrugs.

There are many extraordinary scenes in this beautiful short, one being a veritable music video, where, at the bowling alley, Sophia starts dancing by herself down the alley, as all of the patrons of the bowling alley begin to snap and tap their feet, in unison. Dreamy and surreal, the scene is beautifully imagined and realized. Richie, lost in his own demons, stares around him at the happy dancers all over the bar, and he is so far from being capable of happiness. It is eloquent in terms of portraying his ultimate isolation. But there is also the heart-tugging reality that he is coming back to life himself. That small dancing girl in the bowling lane is someone he has missed, someone he wants to know. Taking care of her gives him a purpose. That red rotary phone on his bathroom floor is not just a telephone. It is a literal lifeline.

A scene like the one in the bowling alley is bold. It is not literal, but poetic and thematic, showing the interior life of the main character in an innovative way. The film is full of moments like that.

Dark, redemptive, and hilarious, Curfew teeters between tragedy and comedy, and it has a deeply loving heart which gives the final two minutes of the film its great power. Shot beautifully by cinematographer Daniel Katz, Curfew manages to show, in 19 minutes of screen time, many different sides of New York: the gleaming penthouse hovering above the skyline, the seedy beauty of Chinatown, the surreal underground of an apartment hallway cluttered with golden pharaoh heads sticking out of the walls, the blasted fluorescence of a hurtling subway train, and the alienating beauty of a packed bowling alley.

There is one scene of Christensen walking down the street in Chinatown, shoulders hunched up against the neon and the life around him, that is entirely reminiscent of the poster of Taxi Driver, with Robert DeNiro as the ultimate isolated man, Travis Bickle. Curfew, and Daniel Katz, beautifully capture the diversity of New York, and in a time when few films are actually shot in New York City, it is wonderful to see how thoroughly they took advantage of the multiple locations.

Christensen is a musician, actor, screenwriter (he wrote the script for the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction), and graphic designer. Curfew is his third short film. It is a masterpiece.