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.