I found myself facing an interesting conundrum with Before I Fall, a film depicting the most extreme version of a conundrum. Given the use of a time loop as the film’s hook, would it be possible for me to see around this familiar concept to find something deeper? As the film circled around the same day over and over, it turns out it had more ideas to develop, the more the film reset itself. The results allow for a film that could surely work well for a younger audience less familiar with this gimmick, as well as those who appreciate the mood and eventual character revelations more than overall construction and clear logic.
Based on the YA novel by Lauren Oliver, indie filmmaker Ry Russo-Young steps up to direct what could have been a fairly slight movie. Before I Fall places focus on Samantha (Zoey Deutch), a high school senior who gets stuck reliving what could be the last day of her life over and over again. Beginning the day with a ride to school with her “mean girl” friends (Halston Sage, Cynthy Wu and Medalion Rahimi), the story is set on Cupid Day (Feb. 12), which leads to a big party that night. From there, the teenage friends get into a car accident, but Samantha simply wakes up at the beginning of the same day again.
Unlike the romantic comedy classic Groundhog Day or even the more recent thriller Live. Die. Repeat Edge of Tomorrow, Before I Fall does not try to find much humor in the situation. It’s an appropriate choice, as even with the trappings of a YA novel, Russo-Young does her best to play up the drama of the situation and use the chilly Pacific Northwest setting to the film’s advantage. As a result, despite taking a little while to really get going, this is a film that makes the burden an interesting journey for Samantha to go on, despite the torment it creates for her.
Having graduated from Vampire Academy, headed off to college in Everybody Wants Some!! and now somehow back in high school, Deutch equips herself well here. It’s those YA trappings that undermine her role a bit, as you never really by her as a “mean girl” type, so the quicker the film moves her past this the better. Not helping either is the film’s decision to have her dating a guy so obviously terrible in the most “bro” kind of way, while a perfectly likable Kent (Logan Miller) admires her from afar. Still, rather than focus on the trite elements, it is more interesting to see the care put into this journey.
From the outset, one gathers how Samantha is in a zone where things are inevitably going to change. Being at a stage in high school where all that matters is finishing off the remaining months allows the film to cleverly play around with that very state of mind using the time loop element. Samantha has a life she has become content with, but is now forced to deconstruct it and figure out how to put things in their proper place. This takes shape in a variety of ways, be it the connection to her family and friends, the decisions on how to treat others around her and even the very thought of how to take the days as they come.
While the very nature of a time loop means there must be an inevitable end in the form of one key objective (and the solution is pretty clear early on), Before I Fall’s second half is quite strong thanks to how Samantha really comes around to dealing with her predicament. The first half is a bit mixed, as we spend a lot of time setting up the situation and even more time watching a character get a feel for something I’m all too aware of, given the existence of other films. That would ideally mean the target audience will enjoy the time loop more, but even that crowd may tire of the narration that seeks to simplify obvious moments and feels intrusive.
Additionally, knowing I would be in a time loop, it was interesting to think of the careful consideration there would have to be for the production design. A filmmaker must recognize how we will hear the same songs, see characters in the same clothing and visit the same sets, which means being sure these aspects won’t grow tiresome in a negative way. The film delivers here, as the atmosphere may rely on cool colors and soft tones overall, but there is warmth that comes through, as the friendships and relations are explored. It allows for some dynamism in a film that could have taken a deep dive into repetitive melodrama and held onto little identity of its own.
Before I Fall is not the film that delivers a transcendent experience in the way Bill Murray’s wonderful comedy did back in the 90s, but it does feel stronger than a typical YA adaptation striving to provide afterschool lessons. Thanks to solid work by filmmakers embracing the premise and a cast that delivers (particularly Deutch, Miller and Sage), the film utilizes a familiar high concept without missing out on the strengths this idea provides. It may not have much edge, but there is a level of polish that holds strong, as we see the same day unfold again and again.