Before I Fall (2017)
What if today was the only day of the rest of your life?
I must admit, I knew very little about Before I Fall prior to walking into the theater. I did know, however, that the film was based on a young adult novel of the same name, penned by American author Lauren Oliver, and that it starred two of Hollywood’s ‘hottest’ up-and-comers: the charming Zoey Deutch and bubbly Cali girl Halston Sage (who’s somewhat cast against type here). Mean Girls (2004) meets Groundhog Day (1993), Before I Fall fuses the teen drama with the time-loop formula, the result, a darkly dramatic, often cynical and semi-philosophical story about a seemingly ‘perfect’ high-school senior having to relive the same day over and over and over again.
Set in an affluent Pacific Northwest town and narrated by the film’s central figure, Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch), Before I Fall opens up on the morning of February 12th, the day starting out just like any other. Y’see, it happens to be Cupid Day at the high school Samantha attends. It’s a special day where boys and girls hand roses out to random students around the school as tokens of admiration, the extracurricular bustle more of a popularity contest over anything truly ‘romantic.’ With her stellar good looks and booming social status, it’s a day Samantha — or Sam for short — looks forward to each and every year, as do her girlfriends, the drop-dead-gorgeous Lindsay Edgecomb (Halston Sage), who operates as the clique’s leader, and her loyal minions Ally (Cynthia Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi). As the day plays out, it becomes apparent that our plucky protagonist and her ‘nasty’ besties enjoy making life a living hell for their less-admired classmates, chiefly misfit Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris), a loner ‘artsy’ student in desperate need of hairstyle and fashion advice. And just like any other day, the quartet of ‘mean girls’ spend their time chatting about boys, their social life and, of course, sex, Samantha on the verge of popping her cherry with her ‘hot’ bae Rob (Kian Lawley) at a big get-together taking place that very night.
Alas, the eve’s festivities don’t quite go according to plan, with unwelcome buzzkill Juliet walking in on the party and ruining it for Samantha and her trio of gal pals. Late that same night, while cruisin’ home in Lindasay’s SUV, the teens are killed in a freak car accident, their vehicle flipping over on the road when it accidentally slams into an unseen object. Strangely, Samantha finds herself in bed, waking up on the morning of February 12th (the day of her death) immediately after the crash. Too bizarre to be shrugged off as simple déjà vu, Sam quickly realizes that she’s trapped in a loop, stuck reliving the same day on repeat. To try to make sense of what was happening, Samantha begins to unravel the mystery behind her passing, this causing her to question her entire life as a result — was her idyllic existence glib and empty? As Sam lives out her final day on Earth seven times, she goes on a ‘week-long’ journey of self-reflection, learning to appreciate who she is and what she’s truly been blessed with, whilst slowly unveiling the secrets of the people around her (friends, acquaintances and family), our heroin eventually realizing the power, and sheer impact, that a single day can have, not only on her own life, but also on the lives of all those around her.
Written for the screen by Maria Maggenti, Monte Carlo (2011), and directed by indie filmmaker Ry Russo-Young, Nobody Walks (2012) — making a jump to mainstream cinema — Before I Fall feels like a solid adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s stirring 2010 novella, the movie capturing the inherent beauty, moody angst and playful irony of its paperback counterpart. Though I must confess, I know very little about the source material. Sure, Before I Fall runs the tired and trodden Groundhog Day route, with all the trappings, conventions and tropes that the sub-genre has to offer, our leading lady discovering moralistic lessons along the way; but seeing as the film’s core audience probably haven’t seen nor heard of the aforementioned Bill Murray dramedy, it really doesn’t matter. And even with its temporal time-loop structure (the same day recycled time and time again), proceedings are kept visually and narratively fresh.
Following a decent stage-setting intro, the confused Samantha spends her first few resets avoiding trouble (or pushing issues aside) in an attempt to break the cycle. Heck, she even finishes one of the days at a slumber party with her bffs, Sam staying clear of the kegger altogether and surpassing the time of the crash itself, 12:39pm, only to wind up woken by her alarm at 7am on the morning of the day in question — the outcome remaining the same. It’s here that Before I Fall really starts to come into its own. Throwing a spanner in the works, a frustrated Samantha (tired of testing theories out) decides to have a ‘whatever goes’ day, or an ‘angry day,’ if you will, and it’s on this fourth go-around that the bigger picture begins to slowly emerge. Slipping into a sexy, boob-y black getup and going all-out ‘rebel,’ Sam’s ‘bad girl’ approach leads to a series of raunchy and amusing moments, filmmakers having some real fun within these sequences — think sex, bitchiness, bad behavior and all the cattiness that comes with female friendship! This scornfulness, however, turns out to be rather enlightening for Sam, as it triggers her course-correct, the next day (the fifth), turning out to be the most sentimental.
With that said, Before I Fall still manages to find time to comment on identity, chiefly the idea of embracing one’s true self rather than superficiality, while dropping some anti-bullying messages into the mix. And while the fantastical ‘magic’ behind the narrative is never fully explained, when delving deeper, the entire film can be seen as a parable for decency and kindness; it’s almost as if Samantha is thrust into this inescapable purgatory as a sort of karma for her past deeds, this eventually teaching the once confirmative teen some invaluable lesson on life, the movie’s concepts and themes pointing to one (blatant) conclusion — every second counts, so make your words and actions matter.
Aiming for the YA demographic, the entire flick sports a polished production, Before I Fall coated in beautifully dour imagery. Aiding its melancholic tone are the cloud-heavy skies and wintery atmosphere, while the tall-treed woodlands and misty alpine setting assist the mysteriousness and foreboding danger of the storyline, the movie taking place in sleek and stunning locations. Kudos to production designer Paul Joyal, The Hurt Locker (2008), and cinematographer Michael Fimognari, Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), who render each frame splendidly, even if some of their work comes off as a little overdone — for instance, Samantha’s high school resembles an esteemed snowy mountains resort rather than an actual education facility. Moreover, Before I Fall is layered in dark electronic/ ethereal sounding indie pop tunes which mirror the poignancy and tempestuous nature of the visuals, the film’s score by composer Adam Taylor, Meadowland (2015), equally as stirring, the music, overall, complimenting Samantha’s emotional fragility; the pulsing track W/O U, performed by GEMS — which plays during the credit crawl — wrapping the film up accordingly, in a plaintive yet affirming manner.
Landing her first leading role, Zoey Deutch, Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), radiates as the charmed Samantha, the big, brown-eyed starlet bringing palpable warmth and pathos to Sam, a character that transitions from a flippant, insincere teen to a young lady who’s painfully aware of the harm she’s inflicted on others, the 22-year-old rendering Samantha’s anger and exasperation towards her dilemma in a credible light, too.
Although somewhat stereotypical, the remainder of the key players are portrayed wonderfully by the support cast. Halston Sage, Paper Towns (2015), brings delicacy and likability to Lindsay, the ringleader of the all-girl posse, a character that’s typically one-note. With her sparkling personality and on-screen charisma, Sage’s presence alleviates some of Lindsay’s nastiness, with the screenplay attempting to reveal her more vulnerable side. Using bullying as a shield to hide her own flaws and imperfections, it’s eventually revealed that Lindsay’s mistreatment of others doesn’t stem from sheer maliciousness, but rather, from her own deep seeded insecurities — a rarity in a narrative of this ilk. Elsewhere, Logan Miller, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), brings depth and sincerity to Kent McFuller, an unconfident guy who’d been openly crushing on Samantha since elementary school, the pair having been childhood friends back in their youth. Lastly, Elena Kampouris, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016), hits all the right notes as ostracized teen Juliet, a passive adolescent victim driven to the point of suicide.
Another notch on filmmaker Russo-Young’s cinematic belt, Before I Fall — having premiered at Sundance earlier this year — is destined to strike a chord with its core audience while working as a worthy distraction for everyone else, the flick elevated by its rich visuals and A-grade direction and performances. Honest, thoughtful and, above all, vastly entertaining, Before I Fall endeavors to illustrate the importance of forgiveness and compassion without ever being preachy or feeling overly schmaltzy, the film an emotion-fueled celebration of life and how we should strive to live it. With a nervy (rather touching) final act that’s sure to hit you like a deer in the headlights, this high-concept ditty is certainly worthy of ‘repeat’ viewings — and this coming from a thirtysomething male critic.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner