film

‘Before I Fall’ slogs through a never-ending day of life lessons

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Zoey Deutch as Samantha Kingston in ‘Before I Fall’ Rating: PG-13; Grade: D+
 
Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) is the wannabe mean girl in the cool crowd who has to work the hardest simply to create the kind of persona that affords her admittance into the human race. That probably sounds harsh, and I suppose I mean for it to, because, in essence, that is the whole point of the exercise of “Before I Fall.”

We’re dropped into this “Groundhog Day” meets “Mean Girls” mash-up aboutSamantha reliving the same day—Cupid’s Day—repeatedly, and I’m sure most adults over a certain age are wondering: What’s the point of slogging through the same day of high school? Who is Samantha Kingston and why has she been granted such a charmed premise?

Based on the set-up conceived, and executed by director Ry Russo-Young (“Nobody Walks”) and screenwriter Maria Maggenti (“Monte Carlo”), there’s something vaguely ill-formed about Samantha, which requires a cosmic trial-and-error series of daily reboots. The thing about daring to dip into the “Groundhog Day” well is that you forget that movie works so well, not only because you’ve got the rascally and irrepressible Bill Murray in the lead, but you’ve also got a character in weatherman Bill who is a real piece of work.

Bill’s a frustrated guy, who tends to slide into jerkish attitudes and behaviors at a moment’s notice and becomes even more complicated once the day starts repeating, and he realizes his hellish dilemma. We watch him as he begins to make “good” choices for purely selfish reasons, but then he comes to understand that fate, or whatever higher power is in control, sees through his motives and won’t let him off so easily. That’s when the real work, the push toward mindfulness, truly kicks in.

“Before I Fall” suffers, in comparison, because Samantha lacks Bill’s initial grounding in character. It would be simple enough to dismiss this by acknowledging that she’s a high school senior who hasn’t come to recognize who she is (or might be) at this stage, but as she settles into the endless loop that becomes her experiences, we see how, for better or worse, everyone else appears to have a firmer grip on their one-dimensional types. The “perfection” of her friends—rooted in how well they adhere to the single note they are given to repeat as endlessly as the daily loops—serves to heighten her blankness.

I wanted to buy into the situation. As I mentioned at the outset, the film seems like a remix of two successful ideas, merging the importance of challenging your experiences, to the point of boldly stepping outside the box and your prescribed self, when everything else seems to only be about maintaining your popularity and wallowing in your self-centeredness.

Samantha discovers that, maybe, she has the chance to make better choices that will impact those around her, but the film, based on a novel by Lauren Oliver, strips away a vital structural element. In the book, Samantha relives the same day for a week, meaning she has seven chances to learn and grow from the experience. That would have been helpful to both Samantha as a cinematic figure—and the audience—because without that narrative buoy, we are left to flail around with no sense of direction and without hope for a meaningful end to the situation.

At the end of the very first run through the day, Russo-Young and Maggenti show us Samantha dying in a car accident with her three best friends, and as she gets a new chance to figure things out, death always looms. I couldn’t shake the sense that all of these reboots amounted to little more than a series of videogame lives with diminishing returns. I wish it had come together more cohesively on an emotional level. There’s much to ponder in the premise, but films rise and fall on the rapport we have with either the characters or the performers, and with “Before I Fall,” try as I might, I never fell under the sway of Samantha or Deutch.

BEFORE I FALL [PG-13] D+

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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