On time loops, mean girls, forced plots, and whether true character is a process or a choice
Before I Fall Open Road Films
Director: Ry Russo-Young
Screenplay: Maria Maggenti, based on the novel by Lauren Oliver
Starring: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Elena Kampouris, Cynthy Wu, Medalion Rahimi, Kian Lawley, Liv Hewson, Erica Tremblay and Jennifer Beals
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 38 minutes / 2.35:1
March 3, 2017
(out of four)
Recycling ideas gets a bad rap. (Including, if we're being honest, from the likes of yours truly.) In fact it's one of the great benefits of art - to be able to try different things with similar, even identical, concepts and stories. To interpret and reinterpret. To try one thing and then the opposite. It's why it's beyond reason to automatically scoff at every announcement of a remake. (Again, guilty as charged.) Which doesn't negate the value of a certain skepticism - the overactive impulse to sniff out cheap opportunism or resist the plunder of intellectual property. But there will always be another angle to every idea.
This is pertinent to Ry Russo-Young's Before I Fall simply because its base premise - a character re-living the same day over and over again - is so enduringly associated with one film in American culture. When the likes of Source Code and Edge of Tomorrow came out in recent years, there was practically a law obliging all film writers to mention Groundhog Day within the first two paragraphs, lest they suffer untold consequences. Technically, I have now officially fulfilled said obligation. But we can indulge it a little further. The difference between how this movie approaches its time loop and how Harold Ramis' classic did is interesting in its own right. Because neither film is built around an explicit plot goal - the way Tom Cruise and Jake Gyllenhaal's time-loop adventures mentioned above were - they both come down almost entirely to a fundamental change of character. But where Groundhog Day saw this as a process - a lengthy one at that, lasting years if not decades - Before I Fall, based on Lauren Oliver's 2010 novel, views that change as a choice. In a sense, it doesn't consider that there is a fundamental change to the protagonist at all - only a change in awareness, and in the decisions she makes as a result of that awareness.
Bill Murray's Phil Connors is a different - and better - person at the end of his story. It simply takes him a seemingly infinite amount of time to get to that point. Philosophically, Before I Fall leans instead toward the idea that people are who they are, and that it's more a matter of what you choose to project than any true metamorphosis, gradual or otherwise. The film, directed with sensitivity by Russo-Young (Nobody Walks), is constantly questioning who we are vs. who we want people to think we are, or who we want to be seen as. This is the ultimate crisis of conscience for Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch), who dies in a car accident one night along with her three best friends, only to wake right back up on the same day, greeted by that same old song that greets her on her phone every morning.
It's not that the film rejects the possibility of actual change. The mere fact that we're dealing with young people has a special relevance. They may all be figuring out who they are, trying on different personas and social codes, but to the extent that who they pretend to be in these high-school years - who they decide to be - dictates who they become as adults, when personalities and habits ossify, perhaps the period when it's still choice, as opposed to essence, is in its twilight. Maybe Samantha is getting to them, and getting through to herself, at just the right time.
"Do you think I'm a good person?" she asks her mom (Jennifer Beals) at one point. It's a sentiment she asks, in one way or another, over and over again. She turns the same question on the clique of friends she spends most of her time with - Ally (Cynthy Wu), Elody (Medalion Rahimi) and especially Lindsay (Halston Sage), the leader of the pack. The answers aren't exactly reassuring. Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott had it bad enough, but at least they only had one prick to deal with. Before I Fall has a foursome of beautiful monsters to redeem. Or die trying.
It all revolves around a party, and the strange girl who haunts it, and the day leading up to it, and the car accident that - at least in some versions of this day - directly follows it. Emotions are already a bit high, being that it's Cupid Day (the high school's official celebration of Valentine's Day), and some people are having roses delivered while others are being ignored. Our four anti-heroines have nothing to worry about; they're getting roses from every direction - boyfriends, lovers, admirers, guys they accidentally hooked up with that one time. One person decidedly not the apple of anyone's eye, on Cupid Day or any other, is Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris), a morose, frumpy art student who wears her long, disheveled hair around her like a veil. That she so clearly wants to be left alone is of no concern to Lindsay and Friends, who make a point of mocking her at every opportunity.
It is she who ruins everybody's party, showing up unexpectedly and accosting Lindsay (and, by extension, the others), shouting at the four of them, calling them bitches (accurately), before the partygoers take matters into their own hands and elaborately humiliate Juliet (not Carrie-elaborate, but a more improvised humiliation) before she takes off into the night. That pretty much does it for the party; Samantha and Co. pile into Lindsay's SUV and the rest is soon-to-be-repeated history. This was not how this day was supposed to go - not even the first time, before she loops back. This was supposed to be the day she lost her virginity - her friends' excitement counterbalancing her nervousness - to her bro of a boyfriend Rob Cokran* (Kian Lawley), only for too much alcohol and the angry ramblings of Juliet Sykes to get in the way.
* An important development: If this movie is to be trusted - and I have no reason to believe otherwise - then apparently backwards hats are back to being a cool thing that cool high-school bros do? I had no idea, but this Rob Cokran is nothing if not cool, at least in this movie's high-school terms. And I don't just mean he wears his hat backwards in one scene. The kid is COMMITTED to that look. Inside the hallways, outside the building, in the school cafeteria, at parties when he's blackout drunk. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say he sleeps in that backwards hat. Respect.
With no apparent future to anticipate, she looks to the past for something that might give her some insight into why she's been put in this predicament - how it involves her friends, how it involves Juliet, how her parents and sister and old forgotten friends may have been the collateral damage of what she, in her high-school years, has become. Chosen to become.
Zoey Deutch is the magnetic centerpiece of a mostly strong cast that doesn't always have much support from Maria Maggenti's script. Deutch is one of the most exciting young screen talents around right now, but - with the exception of Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! - she hasn't yet gotten much material that might do her justice, or the type of role that can be a springboard to bigger and better things. (Fingers crossed for Max Winkler's Flower.) Between, in particular, her performance and Adam Taylor's ethereal, Cliff Martinez Lite-like score, Before I Fall has enough to admire. But it can't escape a story that is badly overcalculated. This movie ties itself into a pretzel just straining to make the machinations of its predetermined plot resolution work or make some sort of sense. But it's so severely forced that the staging of it, particularly down the stretch, never feels likely or even plausible. (Nor do I think the ending really does what the movie thinks it does - at the very least, it seems not to have taken one enormously important detail into consideration, to say nothing of the logistical absurdity of it all - but that's a whole separate discussion.)
As much as the film tries to invest in its characters, the nature of its ultimate intentions doesn't do any of them any favors. This is a film that tries to examine who we become to avoid being revealed as who we really are, and by the end it's chalked its entire time loop up to a pseudo-mystery that has an easy, if ridiculous, resolution. When it finally has an endgame in mind, it leaves all its introspection behind.