To a film critic, reviewing YA movies can feel like being forced to relive the horrors of high school over and over again. But to a teenager, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, especially when the characters are pretty and potentially more fabulous than you are. That’s basically the appeal of “Before I Fall,” Ry Russo-Young’s impressively stylish adaptation of the popular Lauren Oliver novel, in which the most beautiful girl in school dies unexpectedly, only to reawaken that same morning, blessed/cursed to repeat the day until she gets it right.
Like “Groundhog Day” for audiences too young to get the reference, “Before I Fall” suggests that the decisions we make really matter, though it’s not at all clear about why Sam Kingston (“Vampire Academy” star Zoey Deutch) is caught in an infinite loop, or what she needs to do to break it. While the story easily could have fallen into a broken-record rut, “Nobody Walks” director Russo-Young finds ways of making the day in question feel fresh each time Sam lives it, while giving the overall presentation a look, feel, and voice that’s distinct from the vast swatch of YA movies. Shot in elegant widescreen and set to a soundtrack of empowerment ballads, “Before I Fall” forgoes the overlit Disney Channel look, embracing a cooler, steely-blue aesthetic that’s more in line with such bygone cult faves as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Veronica Mars” — plus, it unfolds in that post-Judy Blume space where it’s OK to broach such touchy issues as teen suicide and contraception.
Sam and her friends are “bitches,” and they’re not afraid to say so — they use the term affectionately between themselves, and they’re identified as such by the various wallflowers they harass at school. As leader of their mean-girl pack, Lindsay (Halston Sage) is the worst of them, but Sam’s no angel either: She’s rude to her sister, mean to her mother, dismissive of her secret admirer, and downright cruel to Juliet (Elena Kampouris) the haggard social outcast that she and her friends ridicule on a daily basis.
Ninety percent of the people on this earth would probably kill to spend a day in Sam’s shoes, but it’s kind of a chore to sit through the first time, watching her and the vapid girls she hangs out with plan how great it’s going to be for Sam to lose her virginity that night to boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley). Only, instead of getting lucky — if the word really applies to being deflowered by a drunken Neanderthal — Sam and her friends die in a grisly car accident, and presto, she’s back in bed, at the beginning of the same day.
It’s Feb. 12, “Cupid Day” at school: Students buy roses to send to one another, resulting in a giant popularity contest that leaves Sam and Lindsay glowing, and at least one of their classmates smoldering with resentment. “I’m in heteronormative hell,” groans the lesbian who sits to Sam’s right (they’re studying Sisyphus in literature class, but they might as well be learning the meaning of déjà vu in French). But one of the roses Sam receives is special, bearing a note that suggests that the superficial, self-centered persona she puts on for her friends isn’t the real her; whoever sent it knows there’s a deeper, more sympathetic side to Sam.
That’s the first clue in an elaborate supernatural mystery — one with no rules and little in the way of logic, but a compelling enough momentum that most audiences won’t mind — that leads to what Sam must do to move on. But what kind of person is Sam really? If she were a good student, it probably wouldn’t take her nearly so long to figure out how to break the cycle. And if she truly were considerate, she wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place.
With her chestnut hair and perfect porcelain-doll features, Sam suggests what uptight “Desperate Housewives” neighbor Bree Van De Kamp must have been like in high school, only here, she’s been given the chance to do something significant — and an infinite number of tries to figure out what that should be. Sam tries it every which way: One day, she’s nice to everyone around her, the next, she alienates all her family and friends. She even decides to stay home from the party, succeeding in sparing her own life, but not that of another important character.
Sam might not have seemed like a terribly interesting or deep character when we meet her, but screenwriter Maria Maggenti ensures that audiences gradually come to appreciate both the layers to her personality and the hidden connections that link Sam and those around her as the film unfolds. Meanwhile, Russo-Young’s job is to keep Feb. 12 from getting over-familiar, even as her egocentric protagonist’s mounting ennui finally compels her to stop focusing on herself and look for a solution that can genuinely change things.
Even once the credits roll, “Before I Fall” remains a bit confusing on this point: Is Sam trying to save her own life, or is she trying to make a positive change that will leave the world better once she’s gone? And what happens to all those days she lived incorrectly? Are they like failed lives in a video game, or do they continue on to create parallel experiences? Such questions distract from novelist Oliver’s point, which has more to do with school bullying and the steps we must all do to stop it. Her message seems to be that there are no innocent bystanders when it comes to causing others pain, and if the universe has thrown Sam into this peculiar loop-the-loop, it’s because it wants to teach her that lesson.