Bill Murray may not be around to wisecrack, but Zoey Deutch (“Why Him?”) shows plenty of versatile, captivating teen turmoil in the “Groundhog Day”-like scenario that is “Before I Fall,” the latest beloved YA novel to get the glossy big screen treatment. With a construct that has a popular high schooler mysteriously reliving the same turbulent and invariably tragic day over and over, director Ry Russo-Young (“You Won’t Miss Me”) and screenwriter Maria Maggenti (adapting Lauren Oliver’s book) find plenty of sincere emotion and stylish suspense amidst the melodrama and expected platitudes.
Though it’s decidedly a Hollywood product in its polished, lockstep approach toward teen mindsets — an admittedly surprising swerve toward the mainstream for indie-marinated Russo-Young — the film’s sensitivities are honest enough to make it a cut above many youth dramas.
After fatalistic, reflective opening narration from our presumed main character about last days and iffy tomorrows, we watch pretty, carefree Sam (Deutch) go through what she assumes is a typical Feb. 12: exasperated brattiness toward her loving family; cliquish laughs with her trio of friends, led by mean girl Lindsay (Halston Sage, “Goosebumps”), and including brainy beauty Ally (Cynthy Wu, “Kong: Skull Island”) and party-minded Elody (Medalion Rahimi, “The Catch”); dismissiveness toward sweetly-awkward classmate Kent (Logan Miller, “A Dog’s Purpose”) who gives her a rose (it’s Cupid Day); and moony anticipation for the upcoming evening, when she intends to go all the way (for the first time) with hot but tactless boyfriend Rob (Kian Lawley).
Set in a picturesquely cloudy Pacific Northwest upper-middle-class community of mountainside properties — one of which holds a heavily-attended keg party that night — the blasé privilege on display is both movie-familiar and, in this case, more than a little bit eerie. The molecules really shift when at the party, frizzy-haired, bullied Juliet (Elena Kampouris, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2”) publicly airs her grievances to Lindsay (who calls Juliet “the sociopath”), and everyone throws their drinks on the outcast. After Rob appears too blitzed to follow through with Sam, she and her gang leave in Lindsay’s SUV and, on a rainy road past midnight, get killed in a car accident.
This is when the movie hits rewind, and Sam wakes up as she did the day before, only aware of what’s transpired. Chalking it up to a dream, she comes to realize something strange is happening when everybody’s actions and words are repeated, and no matter the variations she introduces, the night ends badly — either for her or someone else — and it’ll be Cupid Day again tomorrow. As the repetition plays havoc with her attitude, Sam also comes to an understanding about just how shallow and unobservant she’s been about her world and the people in it, and begins to comprehend that she can change, and affect not just her outcome, but also that of others.
The time loop is a fertile enough set-up (it’s also the basis for British author Kate Atkinson’s literary bestseller “Life After Life”) that when the script, and Russo-Young’s attentive direction, zero in on the micro- and macro-changes in the arc of the day, “Before I Fall” generates a fair amount of feeling-centric tension. But while some resolutions are woefully predictable — who she’ll be nicer to (little sis, and mom, played by Jennifer Beals), who she’ll confront (Lindsay) — others are regrettable.
It’s one thing for Sam to recognize Rob and Kent for, the jerk and the nice guy each is, but going further and turning Kent into a replacement romance (he’s been harboring a crush since third grade, which makes him more pitiable than anything else) feels misplaced in the grander scheme of things.
It goes without saying that this kind of thing doesn’t work without a commanding central performance, and Deutch is very much up to the task. Whether looking watchful and worried, renewed and open, or fed-up and ornery, the delicately-featured actress handles the shadings of her character’s Sisyphean struggle with admirable precision.
Sage does a fine job as well, locating the simmering complexities in a snarling alpha female. Even though there are neon-bright moral takeaways about bullying and tolerance for those who need their life lessons spelled out, one of the most refreshing aspects of “Before I Fall” is that knee-jerk comeuppance isn’t in its playbook.
High marks go to the cinematography by Michael Fimognari (“Ouija: Origin of Evil”), a sublime blend of capitalizing on the region’s haunted beauty and the occasional non-naturalistic touch (an off-angle, spooky coloring) that keeps Sam’s journey firmly in the realm of unease. Even Russo-Young’s steady deployment of emo song cues doesn’t grate the way it does in the teen film canon, mostly because there’s a winning truthfulness to “Before I Fall” that belies its more schematic elements.
Like any solid entertainment, you’ve seen “Before I Fall” before, and yet you haven’t.