Message Makes Formula Forgivable in "Before I Fall"

Message Makes Formula Forgivable in "Before I Fall"
Zoey Deutch in "Before I Fall." (Photo: Awesomeness Films/Distributor: Open Road Films)

The Groundhog Day template gets stamped onto the young adult fantasy genre in Before I Fall. It’s an utterly formulaic effort, with paper-thin characters and connect-the-dots plotting, but it’s a hard movie to dislike. Underneath its factory-issued construction is an anti-bullying, anti-peer pressure message conveyed with undeniable sincerity.

As a male in my late ‘40s, I’m clearly not in the target demographic for this adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s YA best-seller about a high school girl who wakes up repeatedly to relive what seems to be the final, tumultuous day of her life. I wasn’t the key demographic for The Edge of Seventeen either, but that terrific coming-of-age comedy had a cross-generational awareness to go along with its smart writing and sharp humor.

Before I Fall lacks in all those departments. The adults are essentially bystanders here (though Jennifer Beals does a nice job bringing some sensitivity to her perfunctory mother role), and even the teens at the center of the story are more types than fully fleshed-out characters. The dialogue is strictly used to set up those types and the plot turns connected to them. As for humor, it’s pretty much absent in a movie that plays kind of like a slightly more subtle, secular version of films aimed at the faith-based market.

Yet, despite all the shallow, predictable qualities of Maria Maggenti’s screenplay, the movie manages to draw you in. The Groundhog Day gimmick certainly helps. The story follows likeable Samantha (Zoey Deutch from Everybody Wants Some) and her not-so-likeable, Mean Girls-styled friends on “Cupid’s Day,” which I guess is just Valentine’s Day, though the movie doesn’t quite make that clear. Roses are passed on in classes and Samantha and her friends mock a lonely schoolmate and generally act like nasty brats while planning for a party where Samantha intends to lose her virginity to her super-popular boyfriend.

But when the loner girl confronts her tormentors at the party, it all goes bad in a hurry. A terrible accident on their drive home seems to put an end to it all, but Samantha wakes up the next morning and…yep: Groundhog Day.

As the reality sets in that she is somehow reliving the same day over and over, Samantha starts to question her cruel clique and her own behavior. After some angry acts of rebellion, she takes on a more loving mission—seeking to not only protect the bullied but also reform the bullies.

Visually, the movie uses the kind of slightly hazy, muted color schemes favored in a lot of mainstream, low-budget horror films. This could be because cinematographer Michael Fimognari has a lot of credits in this arena (Oculus, The Lazarus Effect). The movie feels so stylistically anonymous that it’s hard to gauge what director Ry Russo-Young brought to the party. Russo-Young’s prior credits have been firmly in the micro- and low-budget indie drama camp (she’s worked with Lena Dunham, Joe Swanberg and Alex Ross Perry), so maybe Before I Fall is her audition piece for more commercial, mainstream assignments.

Whether it’s due to how Russo-Young works with actors or just good casting, the performers manage to bring some personality to their lightweight roles. Deutch (daughter of actress Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch) has one of those made-for-the-movies smiles and shows plenty of charisma. Also very good is Logan Miller (The Stanford Prison Experiment) as the nice guy Samantha will clearly choose over her asshole boyfriend before the credits roll. Sorry…is that a spoiler? I don’t think so. The plot turns here have a day-follows-night certainty.

There’s a famous quote attributed to several different people, including legendary studio honcho Samuel Goldwyn: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Critics probably shouldn’t give a pass to a thoroughly mediocre movie for its good intentions. Well, sorry, but as bland and ultimately forgettable as it is, I have to grade Before I Fall on a curve. It feels like high schoolers on the giving or receiving end of bullying might get something worthwhile out of it.

At a time of so much aggression and divisiveness—coming via everything from Facebook threads to the White House—a movie that simply tells teenagers to be kind to each other can’t be all bad.

Before I Fall. Directed by Ry Russo-Young. Screenplay by Maria Maggenti, based on the novel by Lauren Oliver. Cinematography by Michael Fimognari. Starring Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller and Jennifer Beals.

99 mins. Rated PG-13.

Playing at theaters nationwide.

Filed under: TV & Film

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    Joel Wicklund has been writing about movies for over two decades now and, shockingly, he is still allowed to do so. He was a film critic for Chicagoist before its demise, among other outlets. He insists on claiming more online space here in the hope of indoctrinating more lost souls in his personal cult of cinephilia. Reviews, rants, interviews, features…you get the drift.

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