“Before I Fall” suffers from the faux-profundity that a lot of teen-centered fiction falls into in the age of CW and Freeform TV series. This is nothing new, as I remember growing up when shows like “Dawson’s Creek” and other WB-ilk were aired. MadTV once did a funny parody of these shows called “Pretty White Kids With Problems”, and Lisa Loeb even sung the theme song. The reason why these shows exist is simple: teenagers are designed to be self-involved and pretentious. So, gussy that up with the with fulfillment of being as attractive and rich as the characters in those shows, portrayed by actors in their 20s, and you have all of the angst and “depth” of teenagers wrapped in a much better package than most teens experience in their actual formative years.
It wasn’t always like this. While the actors in the John Hughes coming-of-age films were often very attractive, they had a certain reality to them. Maybe it was acknowledging that characters in “The Breakfast Club” had legitimate issues beyond silly high school stuff, or it was the portrayal of topics like abortion in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “The Last American Virgin” that helped separate them from indulgent teen fantasy. Even something newer, like “Mean Girls”, at least gave us humor and a fish-out-of-water protagonist to comment on the Teflon world of teens as filtered through glossy fiction. Sadly, that self-awareness, or even those touches of reality, have been replaced by glossy soap opera masquerading deep fiction for teens. You see it on bookstores shelves as the YA books that don’t involve fantasy or the paranormal, and you see it on the CW and Freeform. Now, the latest example is “Before I Fall”, based on a YA book (which I read, but only vaguely remember), and directed with the icy color palette of a TV movie for 14-year-olds who write bad poetry in spiral notebooks. There is some skill at work here, with a good lead performance by Zoey Deutch and an at times really nice synth score, but it’s all just mediocre, self-serious mush.
Deutch plays Samantha, who is prettier than most of the girls most of us ever go to high school with, lives in a house that looks like it’s at least half a million dollars, and goes to the most expensive public school I’ve ever seen, with mountain views no less. She’s 1/4th of a clique of popular girls, lead by Lindsay (Halston Sage), who is a dialed-down version of Regina from “Mean Girls”. It’s Valentine’s Day, which the film annoyingly keeps calling “Cupid Day”, and Lindsay is getting ready to lose her virginity to Rob (Kian Lawley), her boyfriend for a year. Rob is an idiot and a drunken douche, and the film never convincingly shows us how Sam is able to date this guy for a year, or how Rob stayed with her for a year without cheating on her given how popular he is, or giving us any positive aspects to that character whatsoever. I know girls in high school (and beyond) often fall for assholes who are pretty and offer them nothing, but not NOTHING nothing. Most films at least make this type of character superficially charming.
Lindsay and the gang tend to make fun of other girls, as popular girls often do, including the class lesbian, Anna (Liv Hewson), which makes me wonder how, in 2017, this upper class school in a Liberal state only has ONE open lesbian. Then there’s Juliet (Elena Kampouris), who has really long, wavy hair. That’s all the film does to try to convince us she’s dark, or depressed, or socially ostracized. Juliet gets the worst treatment, and her continuing to commit to suicide in the film is a main plot point.
No, that’s not a spoiler, because this film takes the “Groundhog Day” idea and is about how Samantha keeps reliving this same day over and over, trying to change little and big things here or there. I remember in the book that she only lives this day for 7 days straight, but the movie makes it seem like maybe a month or so goes by trapped in this day. Sam tries to cope in different ways: acting out in anger, hanging out with her family, actually choosing the nice guy who was friends with her as kids and still pines for her (Logan Miller), which plays as geeky guy wish fulfillment in a film ostensibly aimed at a teenage female audience who, if they are crushed on by classmates, probably look more the way I did when I was 17 then Logan Miller looks now. Through all of this, Samantha evolves from a slightly-asshole-ish-but-normal teenage girl into a grown up person who can reflect on their mistakes and act with empathy toward everyone she knows, friend or foe. Jeez, most adults in their 30s don’t even grow up this much.
This isn’t a bad idea for a film, and maybe some grit and realism would have done it a world of good, but it feels hermetically sealed in a pretty perfume bottle. There’s some pretentious narration that basically boils down to the most annoying carpe diem aspects of “Dead Poets Society”, and the ending is problematic.
Sam ends up breaking the cycle of the day by throwing herself into traffic, killing herself and saving Anna in the process, who we’re told through some bad ADR dialogue is probably no longer suicidal after this. Okay, but WHY does Sam have to sacrifice herself? She’s culpable in the harassment of Anna, sure, but does she have to suffer through repeating the day and die for it? If any supernatural force has the power to do this, why isn’t Lindsay being punished? She’s the main harasser, she made up a lie about Anna which started the harassment, and she was DRIVING the car this hit and killed Anna, driving drunk and not paying attention to the road. This story would be a lot more powerful, and show a much greater change in a character, if the main character were Lindsay instead of Anna. This movie picked the wrong protagonist.
“Before I Fall” is kind of enjoyable at times, but its self-importance is as irritating as a teenager’s blog. Its saving grace is capable direction, a nice score with some good song choices, and some good acting. Maybe I’m spoiled since I grew up in and just after the golden age of teen movies, John Hughes films and interesting stuff like “Heathers”. Kids today are being sold pretentious soap operas with little depth, disposable pretty faces, forgettable of-the-moment soundtracks, and facile moral lessons. “Before I Fall” is better than average on those counts, but just barely. C