‘Before I Fall’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

Mama never told me there would be days like this.

Zoey Deutch plays a popular high-school girl who is compelled to live the same day over and over in this adaptation from director Ry Russo-Young of Lauren Oliver's YA novel.

Adapted from Lauren Oliver’s successful YA novel of the same name, helmer Ry Russo-Young’s fourth feature Before I Fall sees the indie director (Nobody Walks, You Wont Miss Me, Orphans) successfully transitioning to mainstream filmmaking. The story of a popular high school senior (Zoey Deutch, from Dirty Grandpa) caught in a time loop that forces her to relive a crucial day in her life over and over, this neatly written Heathers-meets-Groundhog Day high-concept package delivers both technical polish and a toothsome yet likeable cast. Better still, it has just enough tragic edge to draw young adults, and young-at-heart adults, with melancholy temperaments, a sizeable constituency judging by the popularity of dying teen stories. Returns ought to be solid when it opens in March.

The story unfolds in the Pacific Northwest (most of it was shot in British Columbia) in an affluent, mountainous community where everyone seems to live in airy hilltop mansions with forest views. Even the local high school looks like a high-end ski resort. Seventeen-year-old Samantha “Sam” Kingston wakes up just before 7 a.m., expecting that this Feb. 12, known as Cupid Day at her school, will be an exciting one. She is planning to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley) at a party that night, an event much anticipated not just by Sam but also by her besties with whom she goes everywhere, a mean-girl quartet that also includes top-dog Lindsay (Halston Sage from Paper Towns), secret brainiac Ally (Cynthy Wu) and wild party girl Elody (Medalion Rahimi).

But the kegger, held at the temporarily parent-free home of Kent McFuller (Logan Miller), a boy whom Sam was once close to back in elementary school, doesn’t go as planned. It looks like Rob will be too drunk to perform, and the party is invaded by Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris), a social outcast whom Sam’s clique regularly bullies. An argument with Juliet, which ends up with everyone throwing their drinks at the ostracized teen, turns out to be a bit of a buzz kill and the girls leave. While driving home in Lindsay’s SUV, the car hits an obstacle, flips and it seems they are all killed.

But thanks to some strange magic that’s never explained, per time-loop-story tradition, Sam wakes up again back in her own bed and discovers it is once again Feb. 12. The cycle keeps repeating no matter what steps Sam takes to avoid the car accident. If she keeps all her buddies home from Kent’s party, she still ends up back in her own bed on the morning of the 12th. Whether she’s rude to everyone or nice as pie to friends, family and the other kids to whom she’s hitherto been dismissive, it still happens. It’s only once she realizes that her fate might be tied to that of another person in danger that night that some hope appears of ending the Sisyphean grind of eternal recurrence. As with Groundhog Day, the adaptations of William Dean Howells' 1892 short story, "Christmas Every Day” and other variants on the subgenre, it’s only after the protagonist finally learns some moralistic lesson about love, sacrifice or the true nature of Christmas that they can escape the temporal treadmill that entraps them.

Although it’s quite likely that many of the film’s younger viewers will never have heard of Groundhog Day and the like, Oliver, Russo-Young and screenwriter Maria Maggenti playfully tease viewers who might be aware of the time-loop device’s antecedents. It’s especially refreshing to see that like several other recent films that target young women (Frozen, for instance), the key to undoing the magic spell lies not in some “heteronormative” (to quote Liv Hewson’s feisty lesbian character) pair bonding between the heroine and the right boy, but in performing an act of sisterly empathy.  

Indeed, the film offers a pretty right-on moral lesson but without feeling preachy. Sam and her friends may be bullies, but they’re not cardboard hate figures, and backstories are deployed to explain why Lindsay in particular feels such a need to hurt others to hide her own vulnerability. Deutch, with her dainty features and soft eyes, presents a very sympathetic lead, and demonstrates range.

DP Michael Fimognari, well-versed in the ways of horror films after shooting the likes of Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil, deploys slightly cantered angles and eerie backlighting to create a sense of vague unease throughout without overdoing it. Editing by Joe Landauer is similarly on point, syncing up with low-key visual effects to briskly suggest that the cycle has gone round and round many times over.

Production companies: An Open Road Films, Awesomeness Films presentation of a Jon Shestack production
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Kian Lawley, Elena Kampouris, Diego Boneta, Jennifer Beals,Cynthy Wu, Medalion Rahimi, Liv Hewson
Director: Ry Russo-Young
Screenwriter: Maria Maggenti, based on the novel by Lauren Oliver
Producers: Brian Robbins, Matt Kaplan, Jon Shestack
Executive producers: Brett Bouttier, Robyn Marshall, Lauren Oliver, Marc Bienstock
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Paul Joyal
Costume designer: Eilidh McAllister
Editor: Joe Landauer
Music: Howard Paar
Casting: Nancy Nayor
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Sales: Good Universe

99 minutes