The easiest way to describe Before I Fall is to say it’s Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls. That was probably the easiest way to direct and perform it as well. But director Ry Russo-Young and star Zoey Deutch do something far more interesting than that logline would suggest. Instead of playing up the wackiness of a repetitive day or dividing up a high school into groups of specimens, Russo-Young and Deutch focus their attention on the fragility and strength of youthful friendships. Although there is bullying and there are lessons learned, Before I Fall is refreshing in that the lessons aren’t to leave friends behind because you’ve learned that you’re better than them. The lesson is to help your friends become better people because they’ve done many great things for you and if they’ll listen to anyone it’s their friends.
The film itself is an adaptation of a young adult novel by Lauren Oliver. I am unfamiliar with the source material, but the to me the only weakness of the film is the ending and what’s done really well is the attention to friendly gatherings that’s coded with sexual pressure, social media anxiety and the aware smiles and hurts of friends who know each other well. How much of the strengths are in the source material and not just Russo-Young’s and Deutch’s explorations I cannot speak to. But what I can say is that Before I Fall is a perfect audition for Russo-Young and Deutch to receive top shelf offers from Hollywood. Set in an affluent wooded and foggy Pacific Northwestern town, it features some of the best visuals of any teen drama and it features one of the most mature depictions of a young woman from this sub-genre. And Deutch is exceptional.
Deutch is Samantha Kingston. She’s popular and she’s about to lose her virginity to a popular boy. That’s the plan when she wakes up on February 12. The date is significant not only because it repeats in a loop just as the Groundhog Day narrative trope is supposed to do, but because a benign ritual is repeated. At least it’s a ritual that should be benign but kids can turn anything sweet into something cruel. With February 12 being the Friday before Valentine’s Day, the school participates in the ritual of delivering roses with a note from one co-ed to another. These roses are brought into the class as a rose telegram and handed out. Of course, this leads to situations of the popular and beautiful receiving many, many students being left out and visually left without an affirmation, or receiving one with a message that cuts deeper than the thorns.
Sam, of course, gets a pile of roses. So do her friends, Lindsay (Halston Sage), Ally (Cynthy Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi). Lindsay also got a torment rose for Juliet (Elena Kampouris), the long frizzy-haired artist who wears overalls and has been the go to movie trope for loner since the 90s. On the first day of February 12, that doesn’t bother Sam. What’s bothering her is the message from her boyfriend, who she feels like she should symbolically lose her virginity to, it doesn’t convey warmth or understanding, just “here, are you happy now?” The girls get ready for a party that night, her boyfriend is drunk on arrival and then Juliet shows up to confront Lindsay but instead gets doused in beer by most of the popular kids. The girls leave the party, get into an accident and then Sam wakes up in her bed and it’s February 12 all over again.
To get time to pass Sam, of course, has to learn what the universe is trying to tell her to do. While initially this pushes her into days where she suggests a slumber party with her friends instead of the party that they attended, or becomes flippant rebellion against parents and teachers, eventually she starts to pay attention more to Juliet and starts to learn of Juliet’s past friendship with Lindsay. Initially she’s combative with Lindsay but that doesn’t get her anywhere past February 12, because friends don’t listen to anger, once she delicately starts to assist her friends instead of fix them she feels more assured that she’ll eventually live through the rest of the weekend.
What actually sets time back to normal obviously can’t be said but it’s too far if you ask me. I’m not sure how the outcome benefits anyone except the writer of a parable. Ultimately, as a parable, it’s a fine lesson and something that’s probably necessary for many a young woman. The future is female after all and this Mean Girls shtick is a divisive tactic that is primarily done for power or extra male attention. But Before I Fall is so well directed and acted by Deutch that the payoff feels like it should be more than a fable.
The best parts of Before I Fall involve the emotional pain of not being seen or heard by someone who says “I love you, is that what you want to hear?” while taking Sam’s virginity, the pause to look at the size and lines on her younger sister’s hands, when she listens to her mother talk about her eyes being “too close together” in high school and assumes a male teacher’s desires. And most importantly, when Sam attempts to find redeeming qualities in her friends that she has to repeat the daily routine with—instead of abandoning them.
In these moments, Russo-Young and Deutch elevate everything to one of the best high school movies of this decade. These are two talented women who deserve to be elevated with the next projects they’re offered. Before I Fall could’ve been boilerplate. It often boils over with perfectly observed truths.