“The actors elevate this material, see through its flaws, and search for the heart within. They’re up for a challenge, but too often they’re left without an opportunity to engage.”
by Ken Bakely
From the first frames of Ry Russo-Young’s Before I Fall, just by looking at the film itself and studying Michael Fimognari’s cinematography, we know something will go wrong. The Pacific Northwestern setting gives way to perpetually grey skies, characters bundled up in dark-colored sweaters, and roads which appear to have recently dried off from a rainstorm. Every building looks like a ski lodge, with its wooden ceiling beams and gigantic windows, but it all feels cold and damp and depressed.
From there, we get to know Sam (Zoey Deutch), a girl in her senior year of high school. She has three best friends (Erica Tremblay, Halston Sage, and Cynthy Wu), and they rule the school as stereotypical Mean Girls. On February 12, known as Cupid Day, when popular students get roses sent to them by their classmates, and unpopular kids get zip, Sam prepares to head to a party held by acquaintance Kent (Logan Miller), and later, finally consummate her relationship with her boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley). But nothing goes as planned. Her pals cause a stir after berating outcast Juliet (Elena Kampouris), so they leave the party. During the car ride home, they get into an accident, and Sam is killed.
Then she wakes up in her bed. It’s the morning of February 12 again. Huh? Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, she has entered a time warp. The day repeats, over and over, regardless of whether or not she gets in that car. There has to be a way out, but the process of finding the exit will require Sam to examine her life, her past, and what kind of person she wants to be.
Before I Fall is an unsurprising film. It is a tale told straightforward, ruminating on the importance of making the most out of every day, being your best self, and considering the consequences of every action. Maria Maggenti’s screenplay, working from a novel by Lauren Oliver, never takes a single step out of line, and gives Sam a predictably paced path of self-improvement as the fateful day loops. It’s not a spoiler to say that she breaks the cycle, but the way it’s done here demonstrates both a middling desire to try for something subversive, and a bizarre fear to indicate that what happens to the main character should be followed up after the fact.
There are scenes which work, and they can be wonderful. We want to watch our protagonist have fruitful moments on her journey, and Zoey Deutch is a fine lead actress who channels this into results. Her work with Jennifer Beals, who plays her mother, and Miller, whose Kent becomes more important as the plot goes on, is inspired and endearing in its own ways. If Russo-Young was a tad less intrusive, allowing her actors to interact and explore their characters, instead of opting for heavy-handed symbolism (we see one of Sam’s classes in which she studies Sisyphus repeatedly) or glaringly ironic music cues, we could bask in these performances and extract greater meaning.
The best young-adult stories recognize the difference between talking to your audience and talk down to them. In terms of the recent wash of these tales hitting the page and/or screen en masse, the pinnacle is somewhere around The Fault in Our Stars or The Edge of Seventeen. They allow their characters, and therefore those observing them, to use their own heads and draw their own conclusions. Before I Fall doesn’t understand this. It guides Sam around on puppet strings. She says just the right things at just the right moments, and becomes a megaphone for the film’s morals, delivered with minimal attachment. It’s no coincidence that the most resonant sequences are those which could have come from a movie that didn’t have a time warp in it at all. The actors elevate this material, see through its flaws, and search for the heart within. They’re up for a challenge, but too often they’re left without an opportunity to engage.