Director: Ry Russo-Young
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller
Watch Before I Fall online in the UK: Netflix UK
Though its origins lie in a YA novel by Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall, in film form, can’t help but recall Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day in its tale of someone forced to live the same day over and over again. That said, the story of Ry Russo-Young’s movie – her five-years-later follow-up to Nobody Walks – has a little more in common with a more recent example of the repeating-day narrative: Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow (or whatever we’re calling that film these days).
While not a sci-fi feature, Before I Fall shares with Edge of Tomorrow the concept of a time loop being kicked off by its protagonist’s death. Once they realise what’s going on, both films concern the central figure trying to right a wrong to prevent both their own demise and, if not immediately, due to their own personal baggage, some other major event from taking place.
In Before I Fall, the lead manages to correct their own death by car accident pretty quickly after a few tries, only for the loop to keep on going. That’s where the Groundhog Day comparison bleeds back in, since Edge’s loop is basically always triggered by the death of Tom Cruise’s character. And while it may seem reductive to label a film as a riff on Groundhog, albeit on a far less comedic register, Before I Fall is a successful spin on the formula in its own way, not least because it has a killer setting for the concept: the final months of the last year of high school, that brief period of little responsibility and simply waiting for confirmation of a place in higher education, where students of a certain status can feel invincible. For some teens, it might seem that this feeling could last forever; for one of them, it just might.
Before I Fall’s loop victim is Samantha, played by Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!), the ostensibly most innocent member of a foursome of friends and self-described “bitches”. We follow her on Cupid Day, aka. Friday 12th February, as Valentine’s Day falls outside of the school week. She’s set to finally lose her virginity to her dim boyfriend, Rob (Kian Lawley), who is perceived to be among the hottest guys in the school. Sam is spurred on by the encouragement of her friends, particularly Lindsay (Halston Sage), who is merciless when it comes to the whole Mean Girl thing – if Deutch is this film’s Lindsay Lohan, Sage is its Rachel McAdams.
Despite being comparatively nicer on the surface than her pals, Sam isn’t completely virtuous. She has a short temper with her parents and little sister, is borderline hostile towards a former childhood friend (Logan Miller), who harbours obvious feelings for her, and she’s more than happy to join her friends in harassing an outcast girl, Juliet (Elena Kampouris), whose long-gestating outburst at the fearsome foursome, and subsequent humiliation at their hands, effectively ends up setting the time loop in motion in multiple ways – it soon becomes apparent that it’s not necessarily Sam’s own death that needs to be corrected.
A quick note on Before I Fall’s arguable points of contention: for anyone familiar with the concept, this film’s first few spins can feel a little stale. Additionally, while the characterisation of all four of the main female leads becomes significantly more nuanced as the film progresses, the opening stretch has dialogue that feels a little too much like an approximation of how teens interact, based on an adult’s surface level engagement with a couple of buzzwords – prepare for awkward use of ‘bae’.
That said, the momentum picks up significantly, once Sam makes more sense of her situation and effectively goes rogue; doing what she wants since she can and get away with it, before realising the worth of making the best of a day and the power of simply being good to others, even if you’re not there to see the impact. There’s an engaging universality to the story in how it addresses being conscious of how we treat other people, and also how kindness can ultimately mean very little, unless you’re genuinely willing to sacrifice something in order to do better by someone else. Before I Fall takes a while to really get going, but once it does, it hits hard.
Russo-Young, making a more mainstream film than her previous indie efforts, doesn’t try to distance her adaptation from the teen drama movie tropes that are too often unfairly spurned in both film criticism and the wider public consciousness, as though films steeped in the big emotions and feelings of such crucial formative years don’t have worthwhile merit or insight. She milks her setting for all its melodramatic worth – not just the high school and its various inner workings, but also the gloomy Pacific Northwest environment.
Of course, this sort of story wouldn’t work at all without a compelling actor at its centre, and Zoey Deutch (the progeny of teen movie icons Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch, both of Some Kind of Wonderful) anchors the film beautifully, giving a stunningly nuanced performance and never belying any sense Sam is a real person, despite all the different modes she has to play within the 100-minute timeframe. She is key to both keeping the film grounded and securing the depth of feeling one might not quite expect from the film’s deceptively slight premise.
Before I Fall is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.