Friday, March 10, 2017

Before I Fall

BEFORE I FALL (Ry Russo-Young, 2017)

High school senior Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) wakes up on February 12 expecting it to be an eventful day. It is, just not in any way she could have imagined. In BEFORE I FALL Samantha and her friends are on the way home from a party when they are in a terrible car accident. Dying in the crash jolts her awake only to discover that it is February 12 again. At first Samantha thinks she just had a bad dream, but as the day progresses, she finds that everything is repeating. The more Samantha learns what happens on this fateful day, the more determined she is to change the events. Nevertheless, altering her actions seems to have no effect on the loop she is inhabiting.

While much is at stake in BEFORE I FALL, this teen drama variation on GROUNDHOG DAY lacks the richness of the obvious influence for the young adult novel on which the film is based. Related to that, part of the problem exists in not having a clear sense of Samantha’s character before metaphysical complications enter her life. She runs with the popular crowd at school yet doesn’t seem as deserving of such a drastic lesson, unlike Bill Murray’s arrogant weatherman. The arc she travels from insensitivity to enlightenment covers just a small amount of ground. Occupying this purgatory is an unduly harsh penalty for what amounts to a mystical experience in encouraging greater empathy.

The relative mildness of Samantha’s shortcomings can make a significant portion of BEFORE I FALL dramatically unsatisfying. Is such an unhappy circumstance foisted upon her really merited for a teenager who can be a little sharp with her younger sister and mother and less than charitable toward some classmates? Although this aspect can work against the film, it leads to a philosophically nuanced observation by the end. It’s bold for BEFORE I FALL to posit that the small deficiencies in kindness can have ruinous results. Samantha may just make a tiny impression on the world, but the butterfly effect’s amplification of such words and actions means that she’s helping to spread negativity, even if it is invisible. The film isn’t couched in religious terms, yet it reveals itself to be an exercise in following the Golden Rule.

Deutch is an open performer who projects fundamental decency to the point that it can be hard to believe that she’s as bratty and self-involved as the film needs her to be. It’s less a fault of the actress than it is of the screenwriter and director. Samantha’s sensitive and searching qualities are never in doubt when Deutch is called upon to confront the challenge before her. BEFORE I FALL succeeds based on watching how her character responds to the test.

Grade: B-

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