Director Ry Russo-Young’s teen drama Before I Fall starts in not one, but two well worn places that many filmgoers are familiar with and possibly sick of seeing. But before they write it off based on a recitation of the premise or watching the trailer, they’d be remiss if they didn’t give this thoughtful little film a chance.
Small town Pacific Northwest teenager Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) has a pretty great life. She’s a senior in high school with her whole life ahead of her. She has a loving family that cares about her and supports her. She runs with a pack of popular kids – led by the cheerful, but overpowering Lindsay (Halston Sage) – and together they talk about how awesome their lives are while making fun of the misfortunate nerds that they think are cluttering up their high school hallways, particularly the mousy and artistic Juliet (Elena Kampouris) who draws the brunt of their misplaced ire. It’s February 12th, the start of Valentines Day weekend, and Sam’s all excited to lose her virginity to a braindead jock (Kian Lawley) at a house party thrown by Kent (Logan Miller), a kindly dork who has an unrequited crush on her. The party turns into a debacle for everyone there, and on the way home, Sam and her friends are involved in a sudden and horrific car accident. But instead of dying or waking up in the hospital, Sam wakes up in her own bed and has somehow been transported back to the start of the previous, fateful day; a process that she will be doomed to repeat over and over again until something significant changes in her life.
It sounds as if one of Queen Bee Regina George’s Mean Girls were forced to reconsider their lifestyle choices Groundhog Day style, but with Before I Fall Young proves that it’s not the premise that matters, but where the premise goes that’s important. Based on the young adult bestseller by Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall takes a story that has previously only been played cynically – either for comedic punchlines like Groundhog Day or nihilistic shocks like The Butterfly Effect – and delivers a nuanced parable for the pressures of growing up and what it means to be a free thinking adult instead of another face in the crowd. This could have been something horrendous, but it turns out that Before I Fall is one of the most thoughtful films of the year thus far.
The overall tone of Before I Fall is important to the film’s success, and Young and Deutch do a fine job in tandem to underline how frightening and disorienting living the same day over and over again can be. The Pacific Northwest landscapes (filmed on location in British Columbia) naturally lend themselves well to a sense of listless dreariness, but Young adds a subtle degree of unease to her visuals without lapsing over into constant menace and never once playing them for comic effect. Employing cinematographer Michael Filmognari, a D.P. best known for horror films like Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil, Young makes a deliberate attempt to create an unforgiving, but not entirely uncaring world view. It never feels like Sam’s community is a bad place to live, but it looks like a place where bad things happen every day without people noticing them. It never feels ominous or mysterious, but it does feel like a place people would move to if they wanted to keep a lot of secrets hidden.
That’s the other major element that makes Before I Fall so surprising. Whereas other films that have tread similar ground are more about the main character learning to become less of a jerk, Before I Fall is more about Sam learning about what makes the people around her act the way they do. She hasn’t been forced into this fantastical situation to help herself as much as she has been sent back to learn about how bad some people have it in comparison to her relative place of privilege in life. Sam’s character arc isn’t one of a relentless, cold hearted bully learning to be a good person by way of some sort of karmic penance, but of an already decent person who blends into the background by palling around with people who happen to be bullies. It’s not so much about Sam learning to be more caring, but about how she should stop being complacent with the bad behaviour of others. That’s one of the hardest lessons about growing up, and a huge step towards becoming an individual.
Once she’s no longer complacent with Lindsay’s behaviour, she starts to realize that everyone she finds questionable has something traumatic in their past that has made them who they are, for better and for worse. Lindsay has severe abandonment issues as a result of her parent’s divorce. Juliet has been adrift following the betrayal of a best friend that she tried to help. Kent felt the sting of loss at an early age and was forced to mature quicker than his classmates. Sam spends time with her younger sister (Erica Tremblay) and hopes that she doesn’t get bullied for a speech impediment when she starts going to school. Sam finds out who she wants to be and the purpose of her journey by learning about the people around her. It’s not about figuring out the right sequence of events to do things in for this day to end, but about understanding why she should care about her world and the people within it instead of passively observing things and falling back on her comfortable life.
Deutch delivers the best performance of her career thus far, and shows a clear understanding of Young’s directorial intent and the subtext contained within screenwriter Maria Maggenti’s script. Complacency is a hard thing to pull off as an actor because it goes against everything one is taught to do as a performer, but Deutch understands that Sam’s awakening has to be slow and incremental instead of a series of sudden epiphanies. Young gives her star, and indeed the rest of her cast, plenty of time and patience to figure out the subtleties of the story, and the result is a high concept lark that feels poignant and unforced instead of a gimmick.
Before I Fall is a teen film that has been made with a heartening amount of care, even if the film doesn’t quite stick the landing at the end. It takes a narrative approach that has previously been proven effective, and simultaneously beefs it up thematically while scaling it back stylistically. It’s a delicate balance, but with her first major studio film after working in the American indies, Young pulls it off with ease and grace.