The elevator pitch for Before I Fall must have gone something like, “Imagine if Mean Girls were like Groundhog Day.” There’s no better, or really any other, way to describe the latest film from Ry Russo-Young, who previously helmed and co-wrote (with Lena Dunham) Nobody Walks, winner of the Special Jury prize at Sundance back in 2012. That, of course, gives her indie cred to spare, none of which she wastes with Before I Fall, a film that mostly won me over despite all of my best efforts.
There’s a lot that could’ve gone wrong with Before I Fall. The film is based on the 2010 young adult novel of the same name by Lauren Oliver, and suffers from many of the same problems that plague much of young adult fiction. Cookie cutter plots, characters, dialogue, situations. Much is telegraphed far advance, though that’s largely a product of its genre and demographic. Get past that—which admittedly may be a feat of some will for older audiences—and there’s a story of genuine interest. That the film is held together so well is a credit largely to the efforts of Russo-Young.
Under her capable thumb, Before I Fall maintains a distinct credibility; the shots are interesting, the tone is reflected well, the pace moves nicely despite its built in repetition. It’s not difficult to imagine a world where Russo-Young passed on this project, leaving it to languish in the purgatory of mediocrity. Instead, we’ve got a film that’s taut enough, for what it is, and will more than likely appeal to its target demographic. That alone speaks to the talent of its director, who makes her first step outside the insular world of festival films without losing any of her indie stripes.
Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) lives a charmed, upper middle class existence. As a member of one of the most popular cliques in her high school, where she and her friends Lindsay (Halston Sage), Ally (Cynthy Wu), and Elody (Medalion Rahimi) rule as tastemakers and heartbreakers. Those deemed lesser than they are tormented viciously, like the tortured artist Juliet (Elena Kampouris) who is so often the target of their bullying. After attending a party one night, the four friends get into a horrible car accident—one that should surely kill them. Instead of death, however, Samantha is caught in a time loop and forced to live out the day over and over again, forcing her to unravel the mystery of her circumstances.
One of the best moves Before I Fall makes as a film is that it never overly panders to or looks down on its target audience. This is a film as unabashedly for teenagers as you can possibly get, but it never mistakes being a teenager for being dumb. Too often, movies aimed at a young adult audience make the unfortunate mistake of over-simplifying themselves and rendering themselves moot in the eyes of their demographic. While older audiences might roll their eyes at some of the characters and situations, the adolescent crowd will find a lot to enjoy from this twisty morality play.
At first glance the opening act of Before I Fall feels choppy and disconnected, making it somewhat hard to get into. As the film progresses, however, and as Sam relives the day again and again, details are added which contextualize some of the bizarre choices made in the first act and add depth to the story, making it emotionally relevant for its audience. With each pass at the day, we learn more about the car accident and the players involved, eventually revealing a deeper mystery.
What at first might seem shallow or trite quickly builds into a stark musing on bullying and adolescent growth. Deutch is wonderful as Sam, bringing a vulnerability to the role as she struggles with what’s happening to her. As she grows with each pass through the day, she stands in contrast with her friends, who wonderfully portray the vapid it-girls you remember from high school. Still, they too develop nicely. We learn more and more about them, Lindsay in particular, as the film progresses, creating an insightful look at the root causes of bullying, reminding us that even the worst people have their scars. The actions of the crew of mean girls are never excused, but as Sam learns more about her friends their perspectives are explained.
It’s a flawed film, to be sure. At times it walks the line between melodrama and schlock at little too finely, and it might be a bit too “very special episode” for many people. Still, Before I Fall is one of those surprising films that audiences might overlook, and that’s a shame. Russo-Young is a director of no small talent working with a cast of remarkable ability. It’s easy to see why the film made so many Best of Sundance lists at the end of this year’s festival. This is an emotionally mature and actualized work of young adult cinema that has appeal that works for the adults in the crowd as well. It’s a wonderful step into a larger cinematic world for its director, one that I hope portends bigger and better things as her career progresses.
Before I Fall is now playing in theaters everywhere.