Take a YA novel and a director like Ry Russo-Young with serious indie-film cred, and, if you’re lucky, you might wind up with something like this mash-up of Groundhog Day and Heathers. To adapt Lauren Oliver’s novel, add in a screenwriter like Maria Maggenti who’s proven sensitive to the trials of young women (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, Monte Carlo), and then cast a promising young actor like Zoey Deutch (Dirty Grandpa, Everybody Wants Some!!) in the leading role, and chances are that you’ll wind up with something as satisfying as Before I Fall.
Samantha (Deutch) is a member of a clique of popular mean girls who are seniors at their Pacific Northwest high school. Her best friend Lindsay (Sage) is their leader, and they heap particular cruelty on Juliet (Kampouris), the school’s odd loner. Due to an unexplained phenomenon, Samantha doesn’t die with her friends in a car crash while driving home from a party, but instead relives the same day over and over again. Mystified, she varies different aspects of the day as it perpetually repeats, trying to achieve a different outcome. Not until Samantha hits on a formula of genuine kindness and honest reckoning can she escape her Sisyphean hell (handily, the myth of Sisyphus is what’s being studied in class this particular day).
Before I Fall puts all its excellent elements in service to a story that’s well-told and has a valuable lesson. As the day recurs over and over, the film takes care to show only selective aspects so that the narrative never becomes repetitive, although each unraveling builds tension due to our anticipation of the ugly fight that occurs at the party prior to the girls’ departure from the scene and subsequent car crash. Extra credit should go to editor Joe Landauer for the deft handling of the story’s recurring events, avoiding redundancy by allowing us to focus on new things in each go-around. That one’s actions matter in the long run is a positive but not overplayed message, one that’s extremely pertinent in this era marked by our social media obsession and epidemic of childhood bullying. The film presents alternatives while staying true to its YA essence.
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