Movies

‘Before I Fall’ Reinvents ‘Groundhog Day’ As A Teen Drama

Before I Fall, adapted from Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel by indie director Ry Russo-Young, is equal parts Twilight-style teen gothic, Groundhog Day, and saccharine self-help story. But while such a stylistic mix may sound strange, the approach yields some memorable moments. The plot concerns Sam (Zoey Deutch) a popular high school student who is killed in a car accident and then mysteriously forced to relive her last day for a week. While in the time loop Sam starts to work against her mean girl-ish tendencies, becomes closer to her family, kisses a longtime male friend she’d wrongly written off as uncool, and, most dramatically, saves a depressive girl whom she and her friends had previously mocked from committing suicide. The metaphysical predicament places Sam in a high-stakes situation, one the forces her to confront her moral evolution and ponder her mortality — whether she’s ready or not.

While time loops have long been found in science fiction, Groundhog Day set the standard for using them as a mode of cinematic magic realism, and it’s a difficult example to top. The idea of bringing that structure to high school hallways is novel, however, and while Before I Fall can lay its vision of morality on a bit thick, it does offer a succinct vision of 21st century teenage life, where the alarm clock from Groundhog Day is replaced by an iPhone.

Deutch, who brought a vivacious feminine charm to last spring’s dude-filled Everybody Wants Some!! is equally charming here, in the company of far more women. With a sweet smile that inevitably recalls her mother,
‘80s queen Lea Thompson, Deutch consistently shows us her characters underlying warmth, and her range of confused and frustrated expressions as she wakes up to relive the same day are both droll and sympathetic. Sam could easily be the one-dimensional popular teen girl we’ve seen in movies for years, but Before I Fall gives its protagonist space to struggle with and ultimately reconstitute her identity.

On one repetition of the day, she smears black makeup on her eyes, and wears a revealing outfit and high heels to school. On another, she plays with her little sister and tells her parents that she loves them. While these moments aren’t exactly revelatory, they feel endearingly true to teenage psychology. With no consequences, many teenagers might would probably choose to play the bad girl one day and express earnest emotion to their parents the next.

Throughout the film, Russo-Young smartly portrays the alternately comforting and painful world of friendship among girls. Sam and her three best friends, Lindsay (Halston Sage), Elody (Medalion Rahimi), and Ally (Cynthy Wu) make for an initially inseparable pack, driving to school together, gossiping about sex, and troublingly, bonding over their distaste for less popular girls. Right away, we see Sam’s intimacy with her friends and the behavior she may need to change.

In one memorable early moment, the four girls, in close-up, look out a window together, their profiles making for a pop Ingmar Bergman homage. There are varying degrees of artistic reference scattered throughout. The rainy, verdant Pacific Northwest setting may initially recall Twilight, given the YA source material, but the detour into a high school party lit in ominous red starts to put one into the mind of Twin Peaks. Some reference points, however, make themselves too explicit. We see (multiple times, natch) Sam in class learning about the myth of Sisyphus and the parallel to Sam’s own struggle comes off as a bit of too obvious symbolism.

Part of Sam’s Sisyphean struggle concerns her impending loss of virginity to her bro boyfriend. To her credit, Russo-Young spends more time on female friendship than romantic connections, though it’s easy to wish the male characters had a touch more personality. Some of the most compelling moments find Sam and her girl squad just hanging out – a scene of them preparing for the pivotal party shows warm intimacy between friends, gently teasing each other and getting ready to face the night in de rigueur crop tops. In a later scene they have a sleepover, and snuggle under blankets by an expensive minimalist fireplace. This image of coziness has a glossy, commercial feeling which adds to its appeal – it’s like a photoshoot from a women’s lifestyle magazine, or a shot from a well-curated Pinterest board.

Before I Fall ends disappointingly with a moment of sacrifice that feels too heavy handed. Along the way, though, there are plenty of scenes of compellingly lush nature and teenage girlhood. “What you do today matters,” Sam recites in voiceover. It’s a familiar statement that wouldn’t be out of place on an inspirational poster, but the today of Russo-Young’s film is one filled with atmospheric moments when it could have been nothing more than a twisty repackaging of teen movie clichés.

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