Historically, teen movies have never successfully answered the question: Is high school mythical and monolithic, or is it all happening so fast that it becomes a whirlwind of hormones and tears? Before I Fall, a young-adult time-loop drama, has it both ways, giving its young protagonist an opportunity to slow down and expand her perspective on her life and her friends and classmates in ways that ordinary teenagers rarely do. It’s no accident that she’s of the generation where Snapchat and social media are already an ever-present time warp, amplifying the highs and lows and skewing everyone’s sense of each other and themselves.
Sam (Zoey Deutch) is a popular, pretty, smart, and fundamentally decent high-school senior living in affluent mountain town in the Pacific Northwest — Twin Peaks for millionaires. She’s been blessed with a hot boyfriend named Rob and a clique of mean-ish girls whose impact on the rest of the student body she’s never had to worry about too much. It’s Cupid Day at her high school, which I guess is what you get when Valentine’s Day falls on a weekend but you still need an excuse for mass hysteria and broken hearts in the hallways. She spends the day looking the other way while her friends bully classmates, and ignoring a nice boy named Kent (Logan Miller), mostly because she’s singularly focused on losing her virginity to Rob that night. There’s a big party at Kent’s house, a confrontation with social outcast Juliet (Elena Kampouris), and then, once Sam and her friends leave the party, a horrible car crash. When Sam wakes up, it’s Cupid Day morning all over again. For unknown reasons, she’s been cursed to relive the day of her death for the rest of her life.
The first few rounds of this, and Sam’s Denial-Anger-Bargaining-Depression cycle, will feel familiar to anyone who ever owned a VHS copy of Groundhog Day. But director Ry Russo-Young and writer Maria Maggenti patiently explore the myriad ways high school is the perfect setting for this kind of routine and repetition. Plenty of teen movies have hit the “Why don’t we hang out with those people?” or “Do I really like this guy?” epiphanies; Sam just arrives at them through more supernatural means. It helps that Sam and her friends never feel like too much like queen-bee bullies; all four are a different balance of obnoxious, sweet, and insecure, and the film is able to explore seldom-seen facets of adolescent friendship. If only the same thing could be said for the more tertiary characters, such as Rob (played by a shockingly wooden YouTube star named Kian Lawley), who are like cartoons of adolescents imagined by adults.
That’s the film’s weakest point — while Russo-Young has a commanding way of peeling back the layers of some of these characters, the film itself can’t decide how deep it wants to go. Before I Fall is a production of Awesomeness Films, a relatively new company spawned by DreamWorks and the Hearst Corporation that specializes in digital talent and YouTube-adjacent projects (hence, I’d guess, Lawley’s otherwise inexplicable casting). If you’ve ever seen a YouTube Red original film, there’s a kind of creeping sense of falseness that will feel familiar in Before I Fall. The film’s more subtle character-based moments are sophisticated and even insightful, but every time Juliet starts rage-babbling or Sam and Kent share cutesy banter, it’s easy to imagine you’re watching an entertainment product crafted by a sophisticated AI. The cast seems seconds away from breaking into an a cappella rendition of an Ed Sheeran song.
But the film mostly retains its humanity, largely thanks to Deutch’s performance and Russo-Young’s insistence on keeping her at the forefront of almost every shot. Deutch takes Sam through adolescent naïveté, angst, and wonder — and getting through it completely alone. (If some of the secondary characters feel thin, it might simply be because their faces are onscreen only about a tenth as much as Sam’s is.)
The film ends on a predictable note: Everyone is more complicated than they seem, and we should live each day as if it is our last. Sam’s ticket out of time-loop purgatory is ridiculously over the top, and the filmmakers seemingly think the movie’s I Know Who Killed Me–style morbidity is more interesting than it is. The closing voice-over narration and montage resemble a bizarre Book of Death by way of Instagram mantra. “I see my greatest hits, the things I want to remember and be remembered for,” Sam intones as we flip through what appear to be Snapchats of her and her friends in happier times. It’s a strange note to end on for a film that’s spent most of its running time asking us to look deeper than the curated and cropped lives our peers present to us. Perhaps heaven is a place on earth, as long as you use the Perpetua filter.