D: Ry Russo-Young / 99m
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Kian Lawley, Elena Kampouris, Cynthy Wu, Medalion Rahimi, Erica Tremblay, Liv Hewson, Diego Boneta, Jennifer Beals
It’s Cupid’s Day (12 February), a day for romantic gestures, red roses, and if you’re high schooler Samantha Kingston (Deutch), the perfect time to lose your virginity with your boyfriend, Rob (Lawley). As her day begins, Samantha is teased about this by her three best friends, Lindsay (Sage), Ally (Wu), and Elody (Rahimi), but she’s comfortable with their comments and single entendres. One of her classes is interrupted by the arrival of flower girls, students going from classroom to classroom and distributing roses for the lucky students who have an admirer (known or unknown), and while Rob has sent her some, she receives another that she believes has come from Kent (Miller), someone she’s known since they were children. Later, Kent invites her to a party he’s having that night. At the party, Rob drinks too much to be of use sexually, while the arrival of Juliet (Kampouris), an outsider that Samantha and her friends have bullied for some time, leads to an altercation and Juliet running off into the surrounding woods. The four friends leave soon after, but as they travel home in Lindsay’s car, it hits something in the road and crashes, killing them all.
But Samantha wakes up and it’s Cupid’s Day again. She can remember what happened, but when she meets up with her friends again, they’re all doing and saying the same things they did the day before. Samantha relives the day knowing that something isn’t right, but while some incidents and events happen differently, the end result is the same and Samantha finds herself waking up on Cupid’s Day. This continues over and over, with Samantha finding different ways of dealing with each same day. As she does so, she discovers things about Lindsay that she didn’t know, and about Juliet, and begins to understand much of what was going on in her life, but which she’d either ignored or wasn’t aware of. But with each change she makes there are consequences, some emotional, some moral, some unexpected. In time she begins to realise that the true benefit of having so many days in which she can experience her life over and over again, is the ability it brings to live a perfect day, and to use it to put right so many of the things that would otherwise remain unalterably wrong.
Before I Fall is based on the young adult novel of the same name by Lauren Oliver, and while it certainly paints an interesting portrait of the group dynamic surrounding Samantha and her friends, on its wider, broader themes of bullying, peer pressure, socially approved acceptance, and emotional confusion, Maria Maggenti’s screenplay lacks the focus needed to make the movie as compelling as it could have been. The opportunity to provide viewers with a powerfully realised exploration of teenage redemption as seen through the eyes of Samantha and the cruel circumstances of her death, is undermined by the determinedly soap opera elements of the plot, and the stereotypical natures of the characters.
Samantha is revealed to be the conscience of her little clique, while Lindsay is the overbearing queen bitch that the other three defer to, and Ally and Elody are the “other two”, the less rounded but nevertheless essential characters needed to make Samantha and Lindsay more important in comparison. With these stock incarnations established, and the movie’s opening twenty minutes devoted to the kind of socially exclusive banter and posturing that quickly grows tiresome if you’re not a member of the group itself, the movie heads for Kent’s party and an awkwardly staged – and edited – hazing of Juliet that you can’t help but feel wouldn’t have happened because Juliet would never have gone there in the first place. It disarms the movie in moments, and brings the viewer out of what up until then, had been an acceptable small town milieu with recognisable small town behaviours. But without it, a major part of Samantha’s coming to terms with her own attitudes and prejudices would go amiss, and her Road to Damascus would take a lot longer to travel along. It’s a compromise, but it’s also dramatically unsound.
The tone of the movie varies too, with domestic scenes at Samantha’s home taking centre stage just as further explorations of her friends and their interactions seem likely to reap better dividends, and then again when the plot decrees that of course Samantha’s relationship with Rob is inappropriate and it shifts her attention to Kent. There isn’t always a through line to connect all these disparate elements though, and while there is a piecemeal, episodic approach to the material that’s no doubt derived from its Groundhog Day-style structure, what connections there are, are often left hanging in order for the action to move from one scene to the next. By the time of Samantha’s last day, the day when she makes everything right, the movie has corrected this imbalance, but it’s too late. However it all turns out, whatever sympathy or support the viewer may have had for Samantha and her efforts will have evaporated long before then (like so many of the movie’s subplots).
What also evaporates very early on is any attempt at providing the plot and the characters with any depth. Maggenti’s script references Sisyphus (a clumsy metaphor for Samantha’s plight) and the Butterfly Effect (an inane metaphor for… what exactly?), but otherwise keeps things simple and simplistic in equal measure. Even the blatant promotion of the mantra Be Yourself (here reworked as Become Who You Are) has all the resonance of a greetings card homily. Meaning and purpose are bandied about with abandon, but neither land with conviction on either the script or the characters, and when pressed into action, feel contrived and pedantic.
The performances are serviceable, with Deutch given the kind of voice over dialogue that even the likes of Meryl Streep or Julianne Moore would struggle with, and only Kampouris makes any real impression, and that’s thanks to possibly the most unflattering blonde wig seen in many a year, and the strident nature of her portrayal. Otherwise it’s business as usual in a teen drama, with the problems of a bunch of well off kids put into sharp relief by the banality of their issues, and their persistent bullying of one of their classmates proof that they’re as shallow as their own gene pools.
Russo-Young’s direction is as wayward as the script, and they seem to be a perfect match for each other, but though the director lacks the wherewithal to make a better movie out of Maggenti’s ill-focused screenplay, she is at least able to relay a sense of the painful ennui that must come eventually from reliving the same day over and over. Thematically, she doesn’t have as tight a control on things as the viewer would like, and this shows in the pacing too, as scenes that should have a directness and a sharpness of intent are allowed to go on for too long, and jeopardise the viewer’s patience and/or interest. It’s all topped off by a slightly trippy score courtesy of Adam Taylor that, much like the movie overall, is intermittently successful at adding to the mood, and sometimes, is overly intrusive.
Rating: 5/10 – to borrow a phrase from sellers everywhere, “Buyer beware!”, because Before I Fall never lives up to its promise, and never focuses long enough on what it needs to in order to be more effective; a drama attempting to be something much more than it is, it’s a project that – like so many others – needed a much better script before it was allowed into production, and which works best if you go into it with absolutely no expectations at all.