In Before I Fall, we meet high school senior Sam (Zoey Deutch) as she floats through a typical day in any popular, rich girl's life. She gets a ride to school with the other pretty girls from her graduating class. They've been hanging out their whole lives, and what could ever go wrong on Cupid Day (the Friday before Valentine's Day) when students buy each other roses delivered during first period and there's talk of a big party, and so on. But who invited the unpopular girl? She's a gross lunatic with wild hair, the popular girls conclude. Let us drive away from this party in the rain and crash our car.
And then, a miracle: Sam wakes up to the same song she woke up to the day before ("Dangerous" by Big Data) and slowly realizes, to her horror, that it's Friday, Feb. 12, all over again. Uh oh, you guys. We've got a total Groundhog Day situation on our hands.
Ry Russo-Young directs the film from a screenplay by Maria Maggenti, which is based on Lauren Oliver's novel. Structurally, it really is like Groundhog Day, right down to the season (seriously, is there a more miserable month than February?). Within the gimmick exists a rare opportunity for our protagonist to evaluate her life, take a sincere moral inventory and, only then, break free from the incessant time loop of a nightmare that has become her existence.
But unlike Groundhog Day, Before I Fall is very much not a comedy. The perpetually gray Pacific Northwest setting and somber lessons about privilege, bullying and teen suicide are more than serious—they are damn-near grave. This is Senior Year with a capital S. Cliques have calcified over the years, but it hasn't always been that way. A nerd named Kent (Logan Miller) is throwing the party at his immaculate home while his parents are out of town. Kent and Sam were friends before the rifts of teenage popularity separated them, and the party is designed to lure her back to his place—and holy lord I can't get over the affluence of this school district.
Much of the recurring plot revolves around the actions of a troubled teen named Juliet (Elena Kampouris), whose years of being bullied result in a late-night suicide on Cupid Day. There are a few housekeeping notes for Sam to address on her supernatural odyssey, but chief among them should most definitely probably be preventing Juliet from killing herself.
It could be that I'm being hard on Before I Fall because this movie just isn't made for me. We are firmly in Young Adult country here, and that's not a place I enjoy visiting. High school was no picnic for me, and today's teenagers seriously freak me out. (For an even scarier glimpse into their secret world, look out for a new documentary, All This Panic, about teenagers in New York City.)
In a lot of ways, Before I Fall is a sophisticated effort. Throughout the 98-minute running time (it feels longer) we really do get to know these characters. How could we not, as the structure places them in a sociological experiment of the highest order. The girls in Sam's clique have sufficiently distinctive personalities, led primarily by Lindsay (Halston Sage), the meanest among them. Their bravado mixed with teenage insecurity achieves ample depth.
I can't quite recommend Before I Fall to grownups, but for teenage girls still battling social hierarchies (and lacking the cinematic wherewithal to know that Groundhog Day is so much better) this might be just the ticket.
Before I Fall reopens at the AMC Fri., April 7.