Movie Review: ‘BEFORE I FALL’ – Before I Stay Dying
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
BEFORE I FALL | 1h 39min | PG-13
Directed by: Ry Russo-Young
Starring: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Cynthy Wu, Medalion Rahimi, Logan Miller, Liv Hewson, Diego Boneta, Kian Lawley, Elena Kampouris, Erica Tremblay, Jennifer Beals
There’s something infinitely interesting about the idea of getting to relive the past – even if it is only one day, replayed over and over again. GROUNDHOG DAY made this concept darkly comedic and poignant. EDGE OF TOMORROW (now retitled LIVE. DIE. REPEAT.) spun it into an edge-of-your-seat, video game-like thrill ride. Director Ry Russo-Young now takes a stab, setting the regenerative concept in the milieu of mopey teen melodrama with BEFORE I FALL – think MEAN GIRLS meets GROUNDHOG DAY meets the After School Special on bullying, THE HORRIBLE HONCHOS. While it’s got a killer cast, and is well-shot, the material is painfully problematic.
The film’s message instantly confronts us (through completely unnecessary narration that runs throughout): this is a story about how we shouldn’t waste our time on Earth. Carpe Diem and all that. Samantha (Zoey Deutch, whose magnetic presence is hampered by the lackluster material) is a popular high-school senior, eagerly awaiting losing her virginity to her totally sleazy rad boyfriend (Kian Lawley). She begins the day normally, waking up to a hot pop song, carpooling to school with her SQWAD – which includes bitchy hot girl Lindsay (Halston Sage), rich girl Ally (Cynthy Wu) and party girl Elody (Medalion Rahimi). But this isn’t going to be like every other day. It’s her last full day on Earth! Dun. Dun. Dun! She’s forced to relive it repeatedly, until she figures out why this is happening to her. Is it so that she can be a better person to those she’s wronged? Obviously! And yet our hero is too dense to figure it out. She’s so dumb, we wonder how she’s managed to make it this far in her schooling.
More than anything, this plays as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for underdogs and society’s underseen. That said, Maria Maggenti’s (MONTE CARLO) script is absolutely cringe-worthy. If the crutch of narration isn’t enough to grate on our nerves (which, in all fairness, could’ve been the director’s choice), there’s the class lesson on Sisyphus (a.k.a. the protagonist’s parallel quest that lands in our laps with a dull thud), and the girls’ cafeteria chat on “The Butterfly Effect” and “Chaos Theory” (you know, as all teen girls do). Characters’ motivation reveals are clumsy, seen from miles away. The circle motifs that proliferate the picture aren’t much subtler. Kudos for the diverse cast, but everyone here deserves better material. Poor Elody. She barely gets a name until the middle of act two and then we’re told (never shown) that she’s an alcoholic. Ally fares worse as her “character” might as well have the last name “Exposition.”
The filmmakers attempt to get philosophical – waxing poetic on living life for others’ benefit – but it doesn’t work because the ideas they posit can all be deemed as selfish acts. If Sammy’s truly supposed to be changing from selfish to self-less, the actions we’re shown are all selfishly motivated as ultimately, she’s only doing them to move on. She takes an interminable amount of time figuring it out too. There’s a clearly demarcated path the audience sees: be nice to the lesbian (fake Julia Stiles Liv Hewson), make out with puppy-dog-eyed Kent (Logan Miller) and help bullied Juliet (Elena Kampouris). Everything else shown – like the stuff with her mom (Jennifer Beals) and little sister (Erica Tremblay) – is this film’s vestigial organs. Plus, we are deprived of any tangible sense of satisfaction seeing the mean girls either die horrifically (which is totally warranted given their abhorrent behavior), or experience any lasting change from Sammy’s one day of change, or, as they say in the one funny line from the film, from “swallowing Oprah.”
The other major problem is the tone. It’s unrelentingly drab. There’s as much energy here as a shrug from a disaffected teen trying hard not to care. Even when pacing should be ramping up, the energy level is kept at “low key.” The sullen mood is befitting of an emotionally withdrawn teen – not a popular, care-free mean girl like our protagonist. Yes, it’s a little fun to see Sammy go on a nihilistic tear, telling off her friends, family and flirting with Teach (Diego Boneta). But it’s far too fleeting a kick. There’s a sort of a double edged sword Russo-Young cultivates: the atmosphere she paints is well composed, however it doesn’t suit the picture.
Before I saw BEFORE I FALL, my brain kept jumbling the titles of IF I STAY and AS I LAY DYING with it. And I’m afraid, even after, it will continue to do so.
BEFORE I FALL opens on March 3.