Before I Fall, The Surprising Star Maker
The moody, thoughtful young adult adaptation that should catapult its star Zoey Deutch forward in a big way.
Plenty of people have an aversion to the budding Young Adult genre. Blame Twilight if you must, but there’s often a turning up of one’s nose toward films that are aimed toward a younger, primarily female audience. It’s not simply to say that these are individually bad movies, but that the entire genre is some form of trash cinema. That it should be relegated to its own shelf in the metaphorical video store of cinema, away from the “real movies” that will undoubtedly go on to win awards or run up their Rotten Tomatoes scores. We often marginalize these Young Adult movies because of their twee sensibilities.
This is a part of modern film theory to which I do not subscribe. Because if you give any movie a fair shake, there is always a chance that you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Which is what I found refreshing about Before I Fall, described pejoratively as “that YA movie playing at Sundance this year.” What I found was a film that is thoughtful, moody, well-acted, and crafted by a filmmaker who infuses it with both scale and humanity.
The story is a familiar one – a high school senior named Sam (Zoey Deutch in a breakout performance) is cosmically forced to relive the same day over and over again, finding herself in an unending struggle to figure out why she can’t move forward with her life. In a reductive sense, it’s Groundhog Day with teenagers who are struggling with the big high school drama of Cupid Day (the film’s shorthand for Valentine’s Day).
Yet while Before I Fall, like the book by Lauren Oliver from which it is adapted, asks a familiar big question (“What would you do if you had to live the same day over and over again?”), the answer is a surprisingly complex rumination on the essential qualities of goodness. Ok, so that’s a little like Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day too, but here we see it through a different lens and with some more earnest emotional consequences. Underneath the glossy veneer of teenagers using the word “Bae” copiously, the Ry Russo-Young directed film has a lot to say about bullying, friendship, the sexual politics of ones high school experience, and death.
Given that it’s set in what appears to be an upper-class white suburb in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a constant twinge of eye-rolling privilege to the entire thing. But that’s sort of the point of the film’s narrative. It’s about breaking the glass on someone’s perfect life and forcing them to dig into their own humanity. It would otherwise be hard to engage with and root for Sam, whose life is by no means filled with hardship, but we’re greeted by a performance from Zoey Deutch that is soulful and layered. As each layer of Beth’s story is pulled away, her character becomes more fully realized and we believe that her experiencing is transforming her.
Throughout this transformation, Before I Fall is also a visually interesting piece of work. Its aesthetic reminds me of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, but with better lighting and a far less subversive side. Before I Fall meditates on humanity’s capacity for good and our tendency to allow the micro events of our lives to pull us away from that essential goodness. It’s more than just saying, “Here’s a movie about a bunch of awful teenagers who realize that they should be better humans.” Before I Fall aspires to be something more thoughtful and profound. And with a few minor missteps, it achieves this goal. Visually, Russo-Young and her DP Michael Fimognari find plenty of opportunities to show off sweeping beauty in the Pacific Northwest. They also find unique ways to tell us the story of the day over and over again without it being stale. These changes in perspective breathe energy into the film’s midsection.
Walking away from Before I Fall, my chief concern is that I hope this film is embraced with an open mind by audiences. There are fans of the book that, as far as I can tell, be delighted to see a good movie come of the adaptation. There’s the broader target audience for YA films that will also find itself enamored with a well-made film. And for those in other demographics willing to give it a chance, they’ll find a surprisingly moody, thoughtful drama that just happens to be about those darn’d youths. With the exception of the film’s very last line of dialogue (which is groan-worthy to say the least), Before I Fall is a very strong entry into the oeuvre of young adult cinema.