Mark Reviews Movies

Before I Fall


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ry Russo-Young

Cast: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Medalion Rahimi, Cynthy Wu, Elena Kampouris, Liv Hewson, Erica Tremblay, Jennifer Beals, Kian Lawley

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving drinking, sexuality, bullying, some violent images, and language-all involving teens)

Running Time: 1:39

Release Date: 3/3/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 2, 2017

Before I Fall is a teen-oriented drama that uses a metaphysical dilemma to tell a surprisingly compassionate and well-performed story. This particular dilemma has been used before, most notably as the springboard for comedy, but that's beside the point. It's about a 17-year-old girl who appears to have her whole life ahead of her, only to end up in a seemingly infinite loop without escape. She keeps living the same day over and over and over again.

The screenplay by Maria Maggenti (based on Lauren Oliver's novel), though, only cribs the idea of a protagonist in a perpetual state of déjà vu, The film's tone and message are its own, and the fact that we're familiar with the concept helps a bit in the way director Ry Russo-Young uses some editorial shorthand to create a sense of helplessness. It might not entirely succeed in that regard, but that's also beside the point.

What is the point, then? Well, it's pretty straightforward: The girl gets to see how her choices throughout the day affect its ultimate outcome. The problem becomes that the choices that have come to define her life, her friendships, her relationships with family members, her romantic decisions, and her selection of perceived enemies already have been made. Samantha "Sam" Kingston (Zoey Deutch) can't change a tragedy that occurs within 24 hours of her waking up on this particular day without realizing and correcting the path of her life up until now.

Something in Sam's life has gone amiss. Most of it is just in the way that kids and their priorities change in the time between grade school and graduating from high school. Best friends become strangers or worse. The kids with whom you grew up become faint pings on your social radar. Back when you were still playing in treehouses, you may have known someone better than any other person, but there comes a point at which you realize you no longer know anything about that same person. The social life of high school is a popularity game, with winners who must maintain their winning status on the increasingly fragile egos of the losers.

Sam's day starts like any other. She wakes up, ignores her family, and gets a ride to school with her best friend Lindsay (Halston Sage), along with their two other friends Elody (Medalion Rahimi) and Ally (Cynthy Wu). It's the Friday before a Sunday Valentine's Day, so students can buy roses to give to their classmates. Sam gets one from her boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley) and one from Kent (Logan Miller), a childhood friend who sits cater-cornered from her in history class. He's having a party that night and awkwardly invites her. She says she's not sure. After all, she has plans to lose her virginity to Rob later that night.

The quartet of friends does end up at the party, where Rob is drunken fool. Juliet (Elena Kampouris), a girl whom the friends taunt as a "psycho," arrives to confront Lindsay and her friends. Lindsay responds by getting a whole room of people to throw their drinks at her.

On the way home down a slick forest road, the Lindsay's car flips, apparently killing the four friends. Sam wakes up and discovers that it's Friday again. The process repeats. While everyone else goes through the day as if it were the first time, Sam is trapped in a loop.

There's something to be said about the way Maggenti and Russo-Young don't concentrate on the gimmick. It's the means of the story but not the story's sole purpose. The film's setup—beyond the central conceit of repetition—is fairly generic stuff. The girls' popularity has made them distant and cruel, but they don't see themselves that way. A less sympathetic film would turn Sam's trio of friends into one-note villains and make Sam into the one who escapes after seeing through the façade. Maggenti knows better. Sam never calls her friendships with these three into question, even she as begins to see how needlessly mean they have been to people like Juliet. There's a bond between them that's more than the superficial cool clique, and Sam isn't going to give up on that simply because she realizes what jerks all of them—including herself—have been.

There's something underneath the public shells of these characters (Well, Elody and Ally remain pretty one-note, with the latter especially getting the short straw when Sam's description of her friend's best quality could also be used to describe a puppy). There's Kent, who pines for Sam, although for reasons that have less to do with unrequited romantic love than with a sense of loss. Of particular importance is the way Lindsay and Juliet's lives were once intertwined. Sage's performance as the school's reigning queen of mean is especially potent among some solid performances within the film. She reveals a constant layer of pain just beneath Lindsay's cruel surface, while Deutch serves as a sturdy, likeable center to the film (even pulling off some of the narration's more navel-gazing lines).

This is a wiser film than its concept and the fairly routine dramatic setup—during the first-time-around events—suggest. It's enough to forgive the film's unfortunate resolution, which turns one vital character into a completely hopeless caricature—weakening the film's theme of empathetic understanding in favor of cemented fate—and transforms the entire story into a rather twisted savior narrative. It's an ending that's obvious once the final cycle of this day begins, but it's a testament to the unexpected strength of the rest of Before I Fall that one keeps hoping the film will come to its senses before it gets there.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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