November 21, 2017

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A Bully Backtracks | “Before I Fall” Movie Review

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The four friends in Before I Fall (Photos: Open Road)

The four friends in Before I Fall (Photos: Open Road)

Midway through the movie version of Lauren Oliver’s meditative 2010 novel of a mean girl, Before I Fall, it appears as though lead actress Zoey Deutch anticipates certain incidents or what the other actors will say, as though she’s halfheartedly going through the motions. Indeed, she is, and justifiably so.

Deutch plays high school senior Samantha Kingston, who relives the same Friday, February 12, over and over again, after a car accident. Oliver uses the Groundhog Day premise, where a perplexed protagonist is caught in a repetitive time warp, to trap Samantha in a peculiar purgatory, and the filmmakers take the scenario solemnly. Yet the existential teen drama shares some of the deadpan sense of humor of the Bill Murray 1993 romantic comedy. (Samantha changes, everyone and everything surrounding remains essentially the same). It’s when the story line turns toward matters of the heart that the tone turns soft, losing some of its edge.

Samantha has a jock boyfriend and a not-so-secret admirer, lives in a large split-level home, attends an affluent school, and runs with the popular crowd. In a departure from the New England-based book, the movie’s set in the rainy and moody Pacific Northwest, also home to “The Twilight Saga,” but the dark woods here are more ominous and the goings-on scarier and uglier than anything in those paranormal romances. Every February 12th culminates in unsettling and relentless bullying: Samantha joins her three best friends—aka her “real baes”—in verbally and physically attacking the school outcast, Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris), during an out-of-control party.

Zoey Deutch as Samantha in Before I Fall

Zoey Deutch as Samantha

Director Ry Russo-Young films the lurid party scene (or scenes, since Samantha has to relive it ad nausea) as wide-awake nightmares, with garish lighting and the heavy bass distorting the techno/trip-hop soundtrack. Unlike many page-to-screen adaptions, the filmmakers don’t stint on the darker layers of the source material.

Juliet’s not the only female classmate the quartet have targeted; dirty blond Lindsey (Halston Sage), definitely the queen of the clique, has orchestrated a social media prank against another outsider, an openly gay student. Samantha’s three friends are supportive—they make sure she has a condom on hand for when she’s supposed to lose her virginity that Valentine Day weekend—but needless to say, they also exude toxicity.

It’s not for nothing that one of Samantha’s teachers lectures on Sisyphus; she tirelessly and unsuccessfully attempts to alter the course of events, all for naught. Each reiteration of the fateful day is unpredictable and messy, reenacted by Deutch with subtle variations.

Samantha’s voice-overs closely mirror Oliver’s first-person narration, though they are less strident and knowing. She’s nicer here, like an every-girl-next-door, and more self-aware and less flippant and entitled. (Oliver’s Samantha is rather more fascinated by the illusive concept of popularity, addressing the topic as though it were a thesis.) Additionally, the novel contains more cringe-producing episodes of the quartet’s cruel behavior, though the film doesn’t sanitize their actions either.

The movie is on par with the novel; SLJ’s review of the book holds true for the adaptation: “Although somewhat predictable, the plot drives forward, and teens will want to see where [Samantha]’s choices lead.”

Directed by Ry Russo-Young
99 min.
Rated PG -13 (with one well-aimed F-bomb)

Kent Turner About Kent Turner

Kent Turner (kturner@mediasourceinc.com) edits SLJ's DVD reviews and is the editor of Film-Forward.com

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