Based on a YA novel by Lauren Oliver, Ry Russo-Young’s “Before I Fall” offers a teen version of “Groundhog Day” that turns the premise of an endlessly-repeating day into an inane, fatally humorless afterschool special. Even the young girls at whom it’s targeted will undoubtedly see through this piece of meretricious hooey.
The purported heroine is Sam Kingston (Zoey Deutch), one of a quartet of senior-class mean girls looking forward to campus “Cupid Day,” when the gals receive roses from their myriad admirers—if they’re lucky. Sam is the second-in-command to Lindsay (Halston Sage), but higher in the pecking order than either Ally (Cynthy Wu) or Elody (Medalion Rahimi), but all the other three members of the crew are effusive over the fact that tonight she’s finally going to “do it” with her boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley).
Sam collects a passel of roses—including one from the smug Rob—but receives a special one from a secret admirer, who is obviously shy, fumbling but sensitive Kent (Logan Miller). Kent’s parents are away, so he’s throwing a bash at his place, and that’s where the girls plan on going—after hurling abuse at their regular victim, outcast Juliet (Elena Kampouris), in the school cafeteria.
Juliet shows up at the party too, where Rob gets too smashed to perform and Sam ad Kent have a heart-to-heart that’s intended to show she’s sensitive as well, and the poor thing gets into a tiff with Lindsay that ends with her rushing out into the night. As the fab four drive home, they hit something in the road, sending their SUV into a rollover that winds up with Sam…
…waking up in her bed the next morning to relive Cupid Day. Thus starts the reiteration of the past twenty-hour hours, with Sam each time trying to figure out how to change her behavior to end the loop. Every day begins with the girls meeting and their History teacher, for some inexplicable reason, asking questions about the myth of Sisyphus—the fellow condemned to roll a boulder uphill every day, only to have it slip back to the bottom again. Weirdly pertinent, no?
And what does Sam learn over the course of her experience? Pretty much what you’d expect: be yourself; be nice to others; don’t be cruel. She stops being nasty to her mother (Jennifer Beals) and her little sister. She stands up to Lindsay—but also finds out why her chum is so mean to poor Juliet. She dumps the drunken clod Rob and realizes that kind, considerate Kent is the person she should have always been with. Most importantly, she tries to make amends to Juliet and comes to accept that she must make sacrifices in order to make things right.
These are all standard-issue YA novel morals, and they’re delivered here with stunning banality. Needless to say, it’s never explained why fate, or karma, or whatever force is supposed to be at work here would pick out Sam for such treatment; by the end we’re supposed to be persuaded that her shallowness merely concealed a person with deep layers to her, but couldn’t the same be presumed of Lindsay, or Ally, or Elody—or should we imagine that they are all undergoing similar instruction as well? Of course, the “Groundhog Day” template—which has a long and crowded history in literature, film and television—has never felt a need to explain what’s happening, but in this case the experience feels particularly pointless.
Given all that, the makers try their darnedest to give the script a patina of respectability. Russo-Young graduates to studio films from her independent background convincingly, drawing more than acceptable performances from her young cast, especially Deutch and Miller (though both Sage and Kampouris are rather over-the-top). Production designer Paul Joyal and cinematographer Michael Fimognari work to give the visuals a grayish-blue sheen that fits the material. And editor Joe Landauer makes the transitions work as well as one could ask.
No amount of technical finesse, however, can transform a sow’s ear into a silk purse. “Before I Fall” suffers from the same affliction that doomed Chloe Grace Moretz’s “If I Stay”: call it the YA Nicholas Sparks syndrome, which brings bathos to the teen years.