What if you were stuck repeating the same day over and over again? That’s the question raised by Before I Fall, an adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel of the same name. It’s not an original question, for sure, and any time a film attempts to explore a similar concept comparisons to Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day are never that far off. In fact, whatever genre the film happens to reside in usually satisfies the other half of the Groundhog Day meets [fill in the blank] description. The variation here is a car accident involving several high school girlfriends at the close of a very significant day, which precipitates main character Samantha’s continued awakening in her bed to relive the day over and over again, to not only determine its significance, but to figure out what she needs to do to make it stop.
Easy to dismiss, and to question its ability to receive a prestige release, when the plot and roster of little-known actors seems to destine the film for the land of video on demand, Before I Fall instead benefits from a few unexpected strengths, mostly its focus around Samantha’s other awakening, to the world around her and the consequences and cause/effect nature of her actions. Understanding there is nothing about her day that remotely resembles what Tom Cruise faces in Edge Of Tomorrow (Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers), and quickly growing accustomed to the stilted, awkward high school dialogue and the routine cliches involving fawning over boys and losing ones virginity, Before I Fall begs you to appreciate it on its much smaller scale. I won’t go through Samantha’s entire day, as you’ll have ample opportunity to revisit each of her various superficial encounters, but suffice it to say there are people she ignores, people she wrongs, people she takes for granted, and answers to questions she never thought to ask staring her right in the face, all part and parcel of her immaturity, which to a great degree excuses the screenplay’s occasional juvenilia. There is a sincere and heartfelt lesson at the center of Before I Fall, and it earns its chance to communicate it.
Of course it wouldn’t be as powerful without a convincing Samantha, and Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some, Vampire Academy), daughter of filmmaker Howard Deutch and eighties dream queen Lea Thompson, rises admirably to the challenge. A natural star, absorbing all the energy in a scene and exuding her mother’s doll-faced innocence, Deutch moves through the various stages and rhythms of the story, wearing each experience and new level of understanding. Her character lives an entire lifetime in a twenty-four hour period and her arc is completely believable, and she grounds the film when it threatens to become cloying or overly sentimental. And late in the film, when it becomes obvious what Samantha needs to do, though not due to a flaw in the film, but instead a careful construction from astute observation that subtly and correctly suggests that what happens is not as important as how it happens, we are left to focus entirely on Deutch from moment to moment, unencumbered by sorting out plot twists and nagging questions of where things are headed. It very effectively shifts the emphasis of the film from the superficial to the psychology of the characters, something which is very rare in young adult cinema, where character is usually subordinated by plot.
Credit for this shift must go to director Ry Russo-Young, who continually distracts from the overt nature of the story with atmosphere, attention to detail, and by making Samantha’s believable change of paramount importance. Employing woefully underrated cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s (Ouija: Origin Of Evil, Oculus, Misconduct) keen eye for composition, and extracting beauty from suffocating environments, lends several scenes of characters lost in the fog an ethereal weight, a poetry which brings this very specific story into the universal. And her choice in music, creating a soundtrack steeped in the experimental dream pop of Grimes and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, also helps to free the story from its obvious trappings, and not just as aural wallpaper either, but a distinct collusion of image and sound, involving at one point, the latter’s haunting “Skeletons,” during the penultimate scene in the film, which becomes instantly memorable. There is a great artistry here which I reserve respect for when it is used to elevate otherwise pat material. I have not read Lauren Oliver’s novel, which I am sure is able to achieve a similar effect by getting inside the characters’ minds like only novels can. Films must find other ways to do so, and get under an audience’s skin, and Russo-Young more often than not finds the perfect balance of style and substance.
From its poster and trailer Before I Fall admittedly does not distinguish itself from the litany of teenage dramas destined to air on the CW network. But there is something more to this, a magic that transcends its categorization, but which cannot be communicated in an advertisement. If you can stick with it beyond its first half hour, during all the transactional scriptwork while Russo-Young introduces her characters and situations, Deutch will soon win you over enough to begin to notice the subtlety and uniqueness in Russo-Young’s style, and by the end Groundhog Day won’t be anywhere near your thoughts.
The Verdict: Rave