Before I Fall: Assured, Crisp Direction, Balanced Tone, and Strong, Grounded Performances

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Editor’s Notes: Before I Fall opened in wide theatrical release, March 3rd.

It’s easy to dismiss Before I Fall, Ry Russo-Young’s (Nobody Walks) adaption of Lauren Oliver’s bestselling 2010 YA (Young Adult) novel, as yet another Groundhog Day knock-off. Surface-level comparisons are just as easy to make. Both center on a self-entitled, egocentric protagonist, a middle-aged weatherman in Groundhog Day, a high-school senior in Before I Fall, forced to repeat the same day repeatedly until they’ve learned a seemingly elusive life lesson. Both films more or less follow the protagonist through the five stages of grief (i.e., denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) before ending on a supposedly positive, life-affirming note, but where Groundhog Day relied on comedian Bill Murray’s singular timing to make a smug, self-absorbed character somehow relatable on his journey toward personal change and redemption, Before I Fall takes a more serious-minded, thoughtful approach to the character and her peculiar (if familiar) predicament.

. . . Before I Fall takes a more serious-minded, thoughtful approach to the character and her peculiar (if familiar) predicament.

When we first meet Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch), she’s the figurative embodiment of white female privilege. She has it all: Wealthy parents who fill her life with material comforts, a trio of Mean Girls/Heathers, Allison Harris (Cynthy Wu), and Elody (Medalion Rahimi), for best friends. Together, Samantha and her friends are their high school’s “it” girls. Every straight boy wants to be with them; every girl envies them. They take full and often unfair advantage at the top of the social pecking order, collectively bullying a shy, introverted girl, Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris), partly out of malicious intent, but mostly out of boredom. On Cupid Day (two days before Valentine’s Day), they also vie for the girl who receives the most roses in school. Samantha has her sights on losing her virginity to her dumb-jock boyfriend, Rob Cokran (Kian Lawley), the same night at a party hosted by Kent McFuller (Logan Miller), the sensitive, good guy she deposited in the friend zone a decade earlier.

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To Samantha’s surprise, the party ends badly, with a confrontation between Lindsay and Juliet that goes from bad to worse, mostly for Juliet. A quick exit from the party, however, ends with Samantha and her friends’ demise when their car hits an unseen object. Except, of course, Samantha wakes up the next morning just in time to run through the entire day, ending once again with her death. As Samantha soon learns, nothing she does – staying home from the party with her friends, for example – changes her fate. She wakes up the next morning to do it all over again. She tries minor variations on her day, but the day resets itself the next morning. Unlike Tom Cruise’s character in Edge of Tomorrow, Samantha isn’t stuck in a videogame fighting aliens with infinite lives. Instead, she’s forced to shed her preconceptions about herself (her relative goodness or lack thereof) before using the time loop to repair personal relationships she was too narcissistic and self-centered to realize were broken. Ultimately, Before I Fall turns not just on Samantha becoming a better human being and living every day like it was her last (carpe diem alert, also Sisyphus metaphor alert), but restoring the cosmic/karmic balance and freeing Samantha from the time loop in the process.

Before I Fall never bothers to explain why Samantha keeps reliving the same day over and over again. Then again, neither did Groundhog Day and it’s justifiably considered a classic . . .

Before I Fall never bothers to explain why Samantha keeps reliving the same day over and over again. Then again, neither did Groundhog Day and it’s justifiably considered a classic, but it’s more likely supernatural – the intervention of something as abstract as karma and as concrete as a god-like being – than not. Given the high-school setting, it’s not surprising, however, that Before I Fall too often slips into clichéd depictions of character types and social cliques. Maria Maggenti’s (Monte Carlo) adaptation takes a broad-strokes approach to Samantha’s friends (Elody has an incipient alcohol problem, Allison falls into the risk-adverse “model minority” category, while Lindsay, mean girl ringleader, gets a hastily sketched in backstory involving her parents damaging results). The object of the mean girls scorn and contempt, Juliet, never escapes the sad-girl/artist stereotype either, stranding her on the margins until Samantha’s fateful decision to pursue her when she flees the party.

More positively, Before I Fall takes Samantha’s teen angst-filled journey more seriously than most, using Samantha’s arc make broader points about social cliques, ostracism, and bullying, each one as relevant today as they were seven years ago when Oliver wrote her novel. Russo-Young’s assured, crisp direction, balanced tone, and strong, grounded performances led by star-in-the-making Zoe Deutch may do little to convince anti-YA enthusiasts of Before I Fall’s artistic or aesthetic value, but for the small subset of moviegoers familiar with the source novel or prone to giving YA adaptations a chance at their local multiplexes, they just might be rewarded with a not unwelcome addition to the time loop sub-genre.

7.5 GOOD

Assured, crisp direction, balanced tone, and strong, grounded performances led by star-in-the-making Zoe Deutch.

  • 7.5
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About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.