Being a teenage girl is confusing and endlessly complicated. At no other time in life do the daily stakes feel higher or the emotions more raw. Even if you were a teenager who seemed to have everything together on the surface, in the quiet of your bedroom you likely were full of angst about everything from friendships to crushes to what kind of a person you wanted to be. With that in mind, you would think that every teen-focused story would dignify the experience with the weight it deserves, but that is certainly not the case.
The new film Before I Fall is a noteworthy exception to that pattern. Based on the 2010 novel by author Lauren Oliver, the film — directed by Ry Russo-Young — takes a day (with a Groundhog Day–style loop) in the life of high school senior Sam (played by Zoey Deutch) and seriously considers and examines the emotional weight of every moment. The story is built on the bond of female friendship and the moral maps those friend groups make. The crux of the plot is that Sam is forced to live the day she dies over and over again until she gets it right.
Russo-Young, best known for directing indie films like Nobody Walks, which she co-wrote with Lena Dunham, spoke to MTV about friendship, feelings, and her female-focused film, as well as why the teen experience might be the darkest one of all.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
MTV News: You are usually known for being an indie director. Was going the YA route a conscious choice for you, or was it the script that drew you to the role?
Ry Russo-Young: It was completely the script. I read a lot of scripts, and this one really struck me emotionally and surprised me. When I was reading it I didn’t see where it was going. I think that is true of the film as well: You think it’s one thing, and you think you have it figured out and you know who these girls are, and then that starts to change over time. I had the same experience reading the script, I thought, Oh wow, this is surprisingly deep and emotional. That was really what I was attracted to and wanted to do justice to in the making of this movie. It had nothing to do with the fact that it was YA. I think the whole young adult thing has a bad name for whatever reason, and the genre has certain expectations. But to me it’s more about the youth experience. I mean, is Ordinary People a young adult movie? No. Is Stand by Me a young adult movie? No. The John Hughes movies? We just have a weird label right now for movies about a certain age group that’s a very commercial label that has its own baggage.
That’s such a good point about the John Hughes movies. Those movies treat the teenage experience with such respect, and I thought that this movie did too. Are there misconceptions that you see a lot about teenage girls that are being perpetuated in movies right now?
Russo-Young: Yes. I mean, you really hit the nail on the head when you said “respect,” because that was a big thing. And belittling the teenage experience, that was something I really didn’t want to do. A lot of YA movies are belittling, or they talk down to their audience. I wanted to dignify the teen experience. When you’re a teenager it’s a really intense and angsty, dark, kind of melodramatic time, right? You are going through crazy shit! And I wanted to handle this with that intensity and darkness. There’s another thing that happens when you’re a teenager, which is that you kind of leave your parents, and your friends become your new universe. These girls are at that time and I wanted to capture the warmth, and the excitement, and the stakes of this new relationship.
How would you describe the friendship between the girls in Before I Fall?
Russo-Young: Their friendships are everything, they’re a little bit life-or-death. They’ve gotten into this herd mentality where there’s an expectation that this is also how they’re going to live their whole lives. Like [the character] Lindsay says, “We’ve done everything right, we’ve kissed the best boys.” They’re kind of on top of their world. But what comes with that sensibility is actually a certain amount of cruelty, and that’s part of what Sam’s arc is: to question her reality. She questions the choices that she’s automatically bought into, which is something that I think we all could do more of. But there’s also a real sense of warmth between the girls, which I love, and felt with my own female friendships growing up. I was always sharing belts with friends of mine, and grabbing each other’s boobs, and telling each other about our sexual experiences. All that stuff was part of what was so cool to me about female friendships at that age, and I wanted to bring that to the movie.
Which other movies about teenage girls do you love or did you watch while you were making this film?
Russo-Young: Jon Shestack, our producer, told me about this movie while I was going down the rabbit hole of teenage movies and watching every single one I could get my hands on (just for research purposes and to really understand the genre). He told me about this movie called Foxes — which has Jodie Foster in it, and a young Cherie Currie, and it’s [directed] by Adrian Lyne. He also did Fatal Attraction, but Foxes was his first movie, and it’s very vérité: four girls, sad, a teen film. That was one of my discoveries while making Before I Fall. It was a movie that I thought was pretty incredible and I had never heard of before. For Before I Fall, the Groundhog Day analogy is super clear because of the plot device. But that’s it, that’s kind of where that ends. I always talk about this movie as if Mean Girls and Donnie Darko had a baby — that to me is where this movie exists.
To ground things in 2017 a bit, do you think in this political climate the importance of telling women’s stories is even greater than it was before?
Russo-Young: To be honest, it’s never really changed for me personally. I have gay parents, I grew up with lesbian moms in the West Village, so I’ve always felt like, “duh, guys.” I always felt like the world had a lot of catching up to do. I hope that all that is going on politically right now continues opening the gates for more stories by and about women. We also need more diversity across the board — it’s not just about women, it’s about diversity in a larger sense.
Before I Fall opens March 3.