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Before I Fall

Sundance 2017 Review


Open Road Films; 99 minutes

Director: Ry Russo-Young


Written by on January 26, 2017 




Harold Ramis certainly didn’t invent it, but his Groundhog Day made the narrative loop device a mainstream mainstay, lovingly aped in everything from Source Code to Edge of Tomorrow to 50 First Dates. In Before I Fall, the loop treatment is utilized rather intelligently by director Ry Russo-Young, from Maria Maggenti screenplay adapted from Lauren Oliver‘s novel.

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It’s February 12th, and high school senior Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) is excited for what Cupid Day may bring. She and her fellow students exchange roses, all determined to be gifted as many as possible. Before long, it becomes clear that Sam and her friends are the mean girls at their high school. They are popular and pretty, but mean and petty. Sam’s got the hunky jock boyfriend, Rob (Kian Lawley), who doesn’t care and the clever childhood friend, Kent (Logan Miller), who really cares. Her best friend, Lindsay (Halston Sage), is the meanest of them all, especially to Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris), a “creepy” student with long hair and a penchant for art.

The beats are familiar, recalling many a teen movie past, but the themes resonate for today’s youth and they resonate clearly. Kent throws a party at which Sam is pressured to lose her virginity to an embarrassingly drunk Rob. Before this can happen, however, Juliet shows up to confront the girls, Lindsay in particular. What results is a painful exercise in cruelness towards Juliet, led by Lindsay but participated in by most everybody. This scene, like most from this first day, is repeated throughout in different ways and never gets easier to watch. The night ends with Sam and her friends in Lindsay’s car, distracted enough to cut close to an oncoming truck, thus resulting in an accident that takes Sam’s life.

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But then, of course, she wakes up to the same day. And while Russo-Young does well in driving the narrative forward, narrowing in on Sam and her gradual path to goodness, Deutch is the hero here. The young actress has been around for a few years, with semi-breakout performances in stuff like Everybody Wants Someand Why Him?, but emerges here in a big way. Make no mistake: this is a good bit of acting. Sam is a complicated character in the way so many teens are: perhaps too complicated for themselves to fully grasp. Consider a scene in which Sam asks her mom (the lovely Jennifer Beals) if she thinks she’s a good person. Initially reticent, her mom recalls a kindness from her childhood, concluding: “you do one good thing, then you go from there.”

Befriending Juliet Sykes emerges as this one good thing, and is a concept never fully fleshed-out. Sam becomes determined to get to know this tortured, bullied soul, but we never learn enough about her. She remains too much a prop for the lead character’s own redemption, up until the very end. That said, what the film is driving at remains intact. It’s not as simple as being mean; it’s about being selfish, too. In watching Sam find her way, Before I Fall reveals itself to be an effective journey, especially for its target audience.

Before I Fall premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opens on March 3.

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