Friday, March 3, 2017

Before I Fall: A thoughtful little fantasy

Before I Fall (2017) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, dramatic intensity and considerable bad behavior by teens

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.3.17

This could be subtitled Mean Girls Meets Groundhog Day.

The party is going well, which means that Lindsay (Halston Sage, far left) and her posse —
from left, Sam (Zoey Deutch), Ally (Cynthy Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi) — already
have humiliated a fair number of peers. Sadly, the worst is yet to come.
But while there’s considerable truth to that mash-up designation, Maria Maggenti’s adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s young adult novel is reasonably inventive in its own right; the narrative doesn’t succumb to potential pitfalls, and a third-act twist is a clever surprise. Director Ry Russo-Young draws credible performances from her young cast, and the result is a solid improvement over her earlier efforts (the little-seen Nobody Walks and You Won’t Miss Me).

But Russo-Young and Maggenti partially sabotage their efforts with superfluous voice-over narration and a wholly unnecessary flash-forward framing device, both of which imply that we dumb viewers aren’t savvy enough to follow the story on its own merits. While this likely is an effort to replicate the inner thoughts of the central character in Oliver’s book, film is a different medium. Contemplative narration that works on the page falls flat on the screen, feeling too much like a New Age sermon. (“Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow...”)

All concerned should have more faith: The core gimmick isn’t that hard to follow, and Zoey Deutch’s heartfelt performance easily anchors the action.

She stars as Samantha (Sam) Kingston, who wakens on what she assumes will be an average day ... which is to say, another opportunity to behave like the other condescending, insufferably spoiled bee-yatches in her posse: Ally (Cynthy Wu), Elody (Medalion Rahimi) and most particularly the hateful Lindsay (Halson Sage). All four wear upper-class entitlement on their designer sleeves. (Indeed, everybody in this community seems to have more money than God.)

This particular day is marked at the local high school with a pre-Valentine’s Day celebration dubbed Cupid Day, when single roses are sent by secret admirers. Alas, this is just another cruel exercise in marginalization: The most popular kids compete to see who can amass the biggest armload of roses, while those left out feel even more unloved.

Which, in turn, gives Lindsay another opportunity to taunt those she despises: notably “weird girl” Juliet (Elena Kampouris) and punkish lesbian Anna (Liv Hewson). Sam, Ally and Elody go along with such spiteful behavior because, well, that’s what friends do.

Everything about this day is difficult to endure — for us, as viewers — because of the relentless, self-centered arrogance. It begins when Sam wakes up, and contemptuously dismisses a sweet gesture by little sister Izzy (Erica Tremblay), and is scheduled to conclude after an unsupervised, late-night party, when she loses her virginity to boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley), a self-centered lout in his own right.

But the party doesn’t go as planned, climaxed by a horrific bit of mob mentality straight out of Stephen King’s Carrie. The shaken drive home — Lindsay at the wheel, Sam riding shotgun, the other two girls in the rear seat — proves equally, suddenly traumatic...

...and then Sam wakens, and it’s the morning of Feb. 12 again. With all her memories of the “previous” day fully intact.

Understandly confused, but willing to dismiss this as a bad dream, Sam navigates the day’s activities with a mounting sense of déjà vu. The same stuff happens, all the way to the terrifying climax...

...and then re-set. Again. And again. And again and again and again.

At which point, a film that thus far has been difficult to watch — the spoiled behavior and casual cruelty having been hard to endure — becomes much more interesting. Sam starts to resist repetition, and discovers that things can be changed; modification alters key events, ingeniously revealing fringe details that are key to what our heroine slowly realizes is necessary atonement.

Russo-Young and Maggenti structure the second and third acts quite shrewdly, unveiling fresh mini-dramas and showing familiar events from different points of view. (I’m grateful, for starters, that we aren’t required to suffer the malicious “mean girl” acts more than the one time.)

Ordinarily — and properly — we’d get sucked into the mystery, speculating where all of this is leading, and wondering if redemption is possible. But that damn framing device destroys any possibility of suspense; we already know the outcome.

And that’s a shame. The impressively busy Deutch — five films in 2016, and an equal number scheduled for release this year — puts considerable emotion into what becomes a very complex performance. She’s persuasively self-centered in the first act, as a thoughtless teen accustomed to taking her parents and younger sister for granted; later, her initial confusion cycles smoothly through an unusual five stages of grief.

Bill Murray played his character’s reaction to such repetition for laughs, in Groundhog Day. But this film isn’t a comedy — not ever — and Deutch’s terror is quite credible, once she realizes that she’s trapped in a particularly bleak sort of purgatory. Her slow adjustment to this situation, and subsequent adaptation, are equally convincing: Much as we initially loathe Sam, Deutch transforms her into somebody whose fate matters.

Sage gets significant mileage from a dismissive smirk, and Lindsay — unlike Sam — initially seems irredeemable. But this, too, is a girl with a hidden side; Sage eventually ensures that Lindsay can’t be dismissed as a one-note shrike.

Logan Miller is equally strong as Sam’s childhood friend Kent, who clearly has carried a torch for her ever since. Kent’s awkward attempts to catch Sam’s attention are endearing, and Miller makes him the sincere, quietly loyal individual who’s never quite been able to be included in the highest social clique ... nor would he really wish to be.

Jennifer Beals, as Sam’s mother, makes the most of a brief but sweetly thoughtful chat with her daughter. Hewson is appropriately spunky as Anna, and Kampouris makes poor Juliet look shockingly fragile: a heartbreaking depiction of vulnerability and victimization.

Wu and Rahimi, on the other hand, do little to make Ally and Elody more than one-dimensional hangers-on; at times, I found it difficult to tell them apart.

For the most part, though, we’re quite emotionally involved once the story builds to its compelling finale. The moral truths found in Oliver’s book are well represented, as is the painful realization that all actions have consequences. There’s much to be learned here, and Russo-Young and Maggenti deserve credit for presenting the journey with such sincerity.

A little kindness goes a long way: an important lesson, in these divisive times.

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