Sure, it would be easy to sum up Before I Fall as a teen angst, weepie re-do of Groundhog Day, but it’s actually a pleasant surprise, having the legs to stand on its own. There are plenty of moments that were pulled straight from the pages of John Green or Nicholas Sparks’ latest (especially the ending), but by and large Before I Fall works. And it’s almost entirely because of Zoey Deutch.
Clearly if anyone is prime material to shepherd in the new batch of teen angst movies, it’s her. The by-product of one of the 80s’ more teen-angsty films (Some Kind of Wonderful star Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch are her parents), she has emerged as one of the more promising and talented actresses among the millennial set. After years of lesser roles in lesser films, she finally gets a chance to anchor her own film, and she does it with a moving, emotional performance.
Deutch stars as Sam Kingston, a high school senior waking up on Cupid Day—the annual rite of passage (and popularity) where students buy roses for other students. She’s part of the school’s Mean Girls-esque clique, led by tormentor-in-chief Lindsay (Halston Sage), a bully who never runs out of people to verbally abuse. We see glimpses of Sam’s decency throughout the day, but it’s not enough to separate her from her pack by any stretch.
That night, after a parents-are-away kegger at a friend’s house, the girls get into a nasty car accident, and Sam wakes up back in bed; it’s Cupid Day all over again. She keeps re-living the day over and over, going through all seven of the Kubler-Ross stages as she does. After confusion and denial comes anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance of what she needs to do to break the cycle. It’s a bit predictable to be sure, but Deutch makes the most of it, sinking her teeth into the role and rising above the rather rote story. We all know Sam is on the track to becoming a better person, but Deutch sells it with a seemingly effortless performance.
Also helping is director up-and-coming Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks), who clearly isn’t content to just the pretty faces and high school stereotypes rule the day. Working from a script by Maria Maggenti (Monte Carlo), who adapted it from Lauren Oliver’s hit YA novel, Russo-Young takes time to let especially poignant moments breathe, which not only gives Deutch a chance to shine but also helps make Before I Fall an ultimately charming and sweet movie that you can’t help but get sucked in by.
The one issue, as fans of the book are well-aware, is the ending, which is foreshadowed almost from the outset (note the title, if nothing else) but certainly becomes crystal clear about halfway through. And since we all know what’s coming, its emotional impact is undercut. It also doesn’t stand up very well to post-movie discussion; too many “yeah, but” thoughts will creep in.
That being said, no one is going in thinking this is a feel-good Disney movie, and if the audience can go through its own Kubler-Ross cycle (ending with acceptance), Before I Fall emerges as a better-than-average teen flick with an outstanding performance from a far-above-average new star.