Before I Fall
Directed by: Ry Russo-Young
Starring: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Kian Lawley, Cynthy Wu
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving drinking, sexuality, bullying, some violent images and language — all involving teens.
1 hr. 39 min
The feeling of déjà vu that pervades Before I Fall hits you in the forehead immediately. You’ve been here before: The character that wakes to the same day over and over and over again. The last time was with a boorish Bill Murray as he woke to Sonny and Cher, morning after morning, in Groundhog Day. The intended audience for this present-day movie may or may not have seen the older film, but even those who did will note a fresh interpretation on this well-traveled concept: renewal through supernatural happenstance.
This tale of being forced to relive the same 24 hours is based on Lauren Oliver’s 2010 novel, adapted by Maria Maggenti and directed by some-time actress Ry Russo-Young. I admit to some trepidation at seeing another teen film, knowing that, for older moviegoers, the attendant angst and pathos would be received with a world-weary groan. But Before I Fall is a satisfying effort for the maturing and the matured, through both its message and the lush, Pacific Northwest environs that serve as the setting.
Made on a $5 million budget, with a cast of young actors known mainly from the YouTube and Nickelodeon spheres, there’s not the pablum found in the latest spate of teen stories, or the gratuitousness of another youngster-favored genre, the slasher film. Though the action takes place amongst cute, but cruel, girls; mostly vacuous, doltish boys; and culminates with a debaucherous throw-down, there is significant depth to the story and performances.
Zoey Deutch plays Samantha, the high school senior who wakes up on Cupid Day, Friday, Feb. 12. (It seems all déjà vu dilemmas happen in February!) You may not know her, but you know her mother: Lea Thompson, who made her acting bones in Back to the Future and ’80s teen flicks. Deutch doesn’t have her mother’s red hair, but heredity is surely at work otherwise.
As Sam, she and BFFs Lindsay (Halston Sage), Ally (Cynthy Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi) are a tight quartet of celebrated girls, campus objects of desire. As the first day progresses, Sam is rude to her little sister and condescending to her Mom (played by an ageless Jennifer Beals). She’s passive in the face of the verbal mortar shells Lindsay fires off, particularly in the direction of a lesbian (Liv Hewson) and Juliet, a disaffected girl with an artistic bent and wild hair (Elena Kampouris). Things wind down at the setting of the day’s apex, the big blowout thrown by Kent (Logan Miller), a sort-of nerd with a crush on Sam. The destiny of Sam’s virginity, its planned deflowering via boyfriend Rob (played by Kian Lawley), an angry group confrontation and stormy Washington state weather all come into play. Then Sam wakens, and wakens again and again. A dream? Death? Purgatory? We see Sam’s personality shift through her ordeal, as if going through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then acceptance.
This is where the film separates itself from the teen pack. Sam’s personal growth is a Dickensian lesson with an EDM soundtrack. This young woman, her fate unresolved, makes repetition her means for redemption. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray became a better man to win Andie MacDowell’s heart. Dickens’ Scrooge had his ghosts. Sam, at 18, softens through a process forced upon her by otherworldly means. At one point she turns to her Mom and reassures, “You’re beautiful,” with not a trace of movie-mawkishness.
A more lavish budget and a more established cast would have, I believe, robbed Before I Fall of its considerable appeal. The film would heave under the greater weight of expectation. As it is, this movie experience plays well, its concept interpreted anew, with heart, the proper tone and gratification for those who go to see it.