Friday, March 3, 2017


The only thing I knew about this film before I bought a ticket is that I was outside its demographic. That became the exercise. Was I growed up enough to give a YA story a fair hearing?  The cinema was sparsely attended (noon on a weekday) but I outranked the twenty or so twenty somethings and felt their judgement of me as some old X-er double dipping in the teen film timeline. "Hey old man, get back to your Blu-Ray of Heathers and leave us alone," each imagined neuron seemed to be hissing. And as the cloying scenes of teenage girls joking like teenage girls in the car to school progressed to a diabetic intensity I felt something very like shame at being here and being too old. But then something happened: the movie got good.

Sam, a beautiful and popular girl, is one of high school's one percent. She wakes on Cupid's Day with a tight fitting arrogance that softens only in the company of her fellow alpha chicks whose spiky banter in the car is expert status maintenance. At school the celebration gently disrupts the classes as Heidi-like flower girls breeze in to deliver roses to the admired. Just when you think you're in for a cloying ninety minutes of life lessons from a teenager the class lesbian says: "I'm in hetero-normative hell!" Then, at lunch the quartet of friends get their Heathers on, barbing each other but uniting in their hatred of the school leper. What felt a little too shiny before starts souring. At the party crowning the day of tributary narcissism the leper is ostracised with barely restrained violence. Party over, the girls drunkenly drive home and die in a head-on. Sam wakes in her bed. It's Cupid's Day. Again.

The prologue has warned us about this. And then the class we see is a lesson on Sisyphus who was condemned by the gods to a torture of constant futility. The sharper girl in the quartet mentions a documentary about the butterfly effect. So, Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day? That's what I thought. But that's wiped off the table quickly as the first repeated day is distinctly different from the previous but for some significant events which repeat like Sisyphus' tasks. The ostracism, for example, remains in every repeated day.

High school movies are about growing up through breaking the forbidding social order of adolescence and triumphing in an act of public self actualisation. No straying from that here (well not much) but what is refreshingly absent is a try at black comedy. Sam's predicament is bewildering and frightening and takes this film away from the gleeful satire of Heathers or the darker reaches of Ginger Snaps and brings it closer to recent teen horrors like Unfriended or It Follows. The insistence on the ostracism with its increasingly dire consequences gives Sam need to break the cycle an edge.

Speaking of edge Zoey Deutch brings a lot to Sam. Some close ups are so intense you can hear the synapses arcing. A lot is asked of her in the role including an impressive reversal of the makeover scene which takes her from a fragile teen Rose Byrne to a snarling older-than-her-years Natalie Portman. The worldliness implied by the superficial change just gets her into worse trouble as well as the more generically correct morsels of maturity. The mostly unknown young cast do very well here. One montage scene of the girls spending the party night at a sleepover with its joyful physicality (sometimes seen through glass doors as from a stalker/slasher's perspective) both advances the tale and delights with its celebration.

Groundhog Day is not the only time loop film but it's the highest profiled example and fulfils the brief by describing an arc of redemption through a compelled self-awareness. That, at heart, is what Before I Fall is also all about. Sam's growing sense of her place and its responsibilities is pretty much it without a lot of collateral. But then the need to keep the playing table uncluttered for a ninety-nine minute running time must have pressed. But it works. Add a strong electronic score supplemented by some solid indie pop and hip hop and a little subversion of both through some pretty deft audio looping (in a pivotal scene) and you have something well above another Heathers rehash.

If you see this film, and I'd recommend it, one thing to ponder is what it would be like without the narration. This is not obtrusive for most of it but does bear down in the bookending sequences where the moral of the story gets the billboard font treatment. I'm exaggerating a little but only a little. I wonder if this is a legacy of the source novel being so beloved by its readership and a perceived need to serve that. I also think of the Tin Drum (my vote for the finest literalist film adaptation of a novel ever) and how some very judicious use of Gunther Grass's powerful prose enhanced rather than laboured what you saw. A revision like the one that happened to Blade Runner might reveal a darker and stronger film. But would it still be a teen film?

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