A film review by Craig J. Koban March 31, 2017

BEFORE I FALL jjj

2017, PG-13, 99 mins.

 

Zoey Deutch as Samantha Kingston  /  Halston Sage as Lindsay Edgecombe  /  Elena Kampouris as Juliet Sykes  /  Logan Miller as Kent McFuller  /  Cynthy Wu as Ally Harris  /  Medalion Rahimi as Elody  /  Jennifer Beals as Mrs. Kingston  /  Kian Lawley as Rob  /  Liv Hewson as Anna Cartullo

Directed by Ry Russo-Young  /  Written by Maria Maggenti, based on the novel by Lauren Oliver

It would be deceptively easy to label BEFORE I FALL as a one note GROUNDHOG DAY rip-off.  Based on its premise alone, I can just picture how this young adult drama was pitched to a studio head: 

"Imagine the classic 1993 Bill Murray day looping comedy morphed with MEAN GIRLS, but done in a vastly more solemn and macabre manner."

It's enough to make your skin crawl just thinking about such a hybrid cinematic mishmash. 

Now, that preamble doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement for BEFORE I FALL, which is based on the Lauren Oliver 2010 novel of the same name.  Yes, its basic hook - that of a young high school girl that is forced by some twisted cosmic power to re-live the same day over and over again - is certainly plagiaristic of the popular aforementioned Harold Ramis directed affair.  That, and BEFORE I FALL does seem steeped in some of the clichés and pratfalls that beset far too many young adult dramas these days.  

 

 

Yet, lurking beneath this film's highly derivative facade resides a surprisingly poignant, observant, and perceptive drama about the trails and tribulations of teenage girlhood.  It also hones in on themes of personal self-actualization and awakening while touching on how life and death can fundamentally alter how adolescents - or people in general - treat one another.  BEFORE I FALL superficially feels like a disposable genre effort, but it has ample narrative and dramatic tricks up its sleeves that helps elevate itself above mediocrity.   

The film is also a sensational performance showcase for Zoey Duetch (daughter of her famous mother Lea Thompson), a vibrant and headstrong young actress that has demonstrated herself to be terrific in some films (like Richard Linklater's great, but somewhat forgotten EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!) while misused in others (like VAMPIRE ACADEMY and DIRTY GRANDPA).  She's a bona fide standout in BEFORE I FALL as Sam, a teenage high school senior that's a quadruple threat: she's gorgeous, popular, smart, and...well...kind of a bitch.  She spends a majority of her waking social time with her BFF clique, led by Lindsay (a well cast Halston Sage), a domineering and destructive girl that'll stop at nothing to verbally tear down any classmate if it means making herself feel better.  Unfortunately, Lindsay, Sam, and the rest of their posse are aggressively mean spirited to one particular school outcast in Juliet (Elena Kampouris), who's grubby appearance and anti-social demeanor makes her a regrettable target of these hostile minded and utterly self absorbed women. 

Sam and company are very excited to be attending school on February 12 - "Cupid Day" - as they all realize that their popularity will be reinforced by the limitless number of roses that they will all get from their admiring peers.  That night the girls all head out to a lavish house party, which ends on a very nasty note when Lindsay leads the charge of emotionally and physically accosting poor Juliet, making her a mockery in front of every schoolmate she has there.  Cruel fate steps in though, as Sam and her pals are killed when Lindsay's car flips on the car ride home.   

Cue end credits, rights? 

Wrong. 

Miraculously, Sam awakens in her bed with the memory of the car crash fully intact.  One thing is completely and disturbingly off, though: She has found herself whisked back to the morning of Cupid Day and is forced to re-live the same day...right up until the night of the house party, which once again concludes on the same car crash that kills her and everyone else...again.  Yet, Sam once again reawakens in her bed on Cupid Day morning.  Distraught and struggling for answers, Sam desperately tries to cope with the realization that she's hopelessly stuck in a state of day limbo, doomed to re-live the same one over and over...and over again.  Predictably, she does things that most teens would if they had that kind of godlike power.  Unpredictably, she does a lot of things that most teens wouldn't. 

BEFORE I FALL is an unusually good looking film in the young adult genre.  Shot with crisp and moody compositions by director Ry Russo Young, the film is more artfully stylish and evocative that it has any real right of being.  Beyond its visual novelty, BEFORE I FALL takes great pains to use a premise that, again, has been done well beforehand and inject some newfound life into it.  Part of the dramatic intrigue in the film is witnessing Sam acclimatizing to her maddening circumstances and learning the ropes of the enormous power she's been granted.  Initially, she uses her day looping abilities in self serving ways, like, for instance, dressing sluttier than normal and even hitting on her handsome English teacher in front of the entire class.  Later on, Sam begins to learn the error of her social ways and starts to fully understand how she can use her power to right past wrongs.  In many ways, Sam becomes a more enlightened and compassionate being towards others as the film progresses. 

This is ultimately what made BEFORE I FALL work for me: It keenly understands the humiliation of high school life for some and paints its characters - mean and nice girls alike - with a lot more atypical depth than similar youth characters in other throwaway high school dramas.  BEFORE I FALL really gets the microcosm of teen girl culture by neither demonizing Sam and her friends for their hellish acts or propping them up for instant hero worship.  All of these girls are really vulnerable and frail when it boils right down to it: They all have displayed capabilities here of being both sweet and kind while being antagonistic and vile.  BEFORE I FALL begins by painting these girls as semi-broad stereotypes, but as the story develops there's an honest attempt to get into their respective headspaces to see what makes them tick.  The assembled cast of actresses here do a thanklessly solid job of selling their character's easy going chemistry; the film feels lived in and credible when they all occupy scenes together. 

Of course, BEFORE I FALL is quarterbacked by Deutch, who manages to impart a sensitive humanity in Sam that makes her a teen protagonist of infinitely more depth than I was frankly expecting.  Her performance arc is a tricky one, seeing as she has to plausibly relay Sam as a viscously spiteful girl early on with her friends, but later has to make her emotional transformation as an agent of positive change feel wholeheartedly credible.  Even though Sam is caught occupying the same day on an endless repeat cycle, the film never makes itself feel monotonously repetitive.  I do feel that the script writes itself into a corner in the final 15-20 minutes, during which time it struggles to find adequate closure while hinting at a spiritual angle revolving around Sam's plight.  By the time the film concludes I felt that thematic subtlety went out the door, so much so that it becomes obvious and preachy. 

Still, BEFORE I FALL legitimately surprised and engaged me and overcame my extremely low expectations of it.  It's routinely well acted, well shot, deals with its regurgitated GROUNDHOG DAY set-up in compelling ways, and, most importantly, amply displays Zoey Deutch as a fresh faced and confident actress to be on the look out for.  BEFORE I FALL is also a rare young adult genre effort that understands its core demographic without shamelessly talking down to it, and that makes the film more richly interesting for all viewers regardless of age. 

  

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