The young-adult drama Before I Fall doesn’t start off promisingly and, because of its premise, doesn’t restart all that promisingly either. Slowly, though, this story of a popular high school senior who finds herself trapped in a Groundhog Day-like time loop begins to establish a more profound emotional plangency and thematic weight. Before I Fall doesn’t entirely transcend its genre limitations, but the film’s clear highlight is relative newcomer Zoey Deutch, who continues to demonstrate what a promising star she could become.
In the movie—based on the novel by Lauren Oliver—director Ry Russo-Young takes us to the Pacific Northwest, where four close female friends are trying to milk every last bit of pleasure from their senior year before they head off to college. The group of pseudo-Mean Girls is led by tart-tongued Lindsay (Halston Sage), but Before I Fall centers on Sam (Deutch), a bright, sensitive, beautiful teen who is, alas, still a virgin. But that might change tonight, as she plans to meet up with her slow-witted but hunky boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley) at a raging house party.
After an unsatisfying encounter with a drunk Rob, Sam and her three friends drive home late that night, getting into a terrible car crash. Suddenly, Sam wakes up in her bed, discovering that the day has started over again. She’s the only one who realizes it, and now she must figure out what’s going on and how she can break free of this loop.
Initially, Before I Fall seems to be a pretty standard sop to the teen audience, layering lots of splashy hit songs on the soundtrack when we’re not hearing pseudo-ponderous voiceover from Sam about the importance of appreciating every day. Things don’t look much better once we’re introduced to Sam’s shallow, “hip” friends, leaving viewers feeling trapped with these drips as our main character repeats the same day again and again and again.
But Russo-Young (Nobody Walks) has some surprises in store, and while it’s best not to reveal them, it is worth noting that, though Before I Fall bites Groundhog Day’s conceit, Sam’s reasons for being in this loop are different than those experienced by Bill Murray’s character. At first, Sam thinks the trick is to keep her friends from driving home at that exact time, thus sparing them from death, but when she keeps starting over on the same day, she begins to wonder if there isn’t something greater—something more altruistic—that she’s meant to do to break the loop.
What becomes apparent is that there is no shortage of possibilities for what that good deed could be. Slowly, Sam learns that, while she may be less superficial than her friends, she’s got plenty of room for personal growth, too. There’s an element of A Christmas Carol to Before I Fall: Sam will be reunited with her earlier selves in the form of friends and former crushes whom she’s left behind in the pursuit of being the person we see now. These revelations help her to understand the kinder, perhaps better aspects of her personality she’s foolishly ditched.
Deutch was dynamite in a small role in last year’s Everybody Wants Some!!, and she more recently appeared in Why Him? There’s an undeniably clichéd element to Before I Fall—it’s a movie that operates safely within the boundaries of this sort of YA fluff—but the young actress keeps pushing against those strictures, bringing more heart and pathos than the character would have otherwise. Deutch believably charts Sam’s transition from glib teen to one who becomes palpably aware of the harm she’s done to others. It’s the kind of performance that’s easy to overlook, but Deutch makes you care about Sam’s growing frustration with her time-loop dilemma.
Unfortunately, the other performances tend to be pretty one-note, failing to rise to Deutch’s level. The one exception may be Logan Miller as a nerdy classmate who harbors a crush on Sam. Like Deutch, he can believably play a teen, and the character is a charming mass of insecurities and sincerity. But will Sam be smart enough to see how great he is?
As our heroine begins to understand exactly what’s going on, Before I Fall makes obvious comments about teen bullying and the perils of female friendship. Still, there’s real feeling in these sentiments—again, thanks to Deutch—and one suspects that, for the film’s target audience, these ideas may resonate far more deeply than they will for a forty-something male critic. It’s hard to be too harsh on a movie that preaches selflessness, generosity and a capacity to forgive others as laudable qualities. Plus, the film’s finale is generally nervy—even if it’s likely not that surprising of a resolution in a genre that prizes melodramatic, tear-jerking moments. Nonetheless, for a story about a character trying to better herself, it’s a shame that Before I Fall remains a decidedly uneven proposition all the way to the end.
Director: Ry Russo-Young
Writers: Maria Maggenti (screenplay); Lauren Oliver (novel)
Starring: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Kian Lawley, Elena Kampouris, Diego Boneta
Release Date: Premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.