It's comforting to think that popular kids peak in high school: that gives the rest of us a chance to catch up. Jocks must graduate to become that sad showboat on the used-car lot. But if we're honest, most of the pretty girls — especially pretty, mean, and rich girls like Samantha (Zoey Deutch), the teen queen of Ry Russo-Young's Before I Fall — wind up fine. If these lucky snots aren't savvy enough to make their own money, they can just marry into more.
Alas for Sam, the beautiful brunette heroine of Lauren Oliver's best-selling novel — now a glossy, moody, gray magazine ad for depression — she's stuck reliving the same day of senior year for eternity. (At least it's Friday — who'd want to relieve a Tuesday?) Thirty-nine minutes after midnight, she dies in a car crash riding home from a party. Her best friend Lindsay (Halston Sage of Paper Towns), a cruel and beautiful blonde, is behind the wheel and survives, as does the rest of their posse, lovelorn Ally (Cynthy Wu) and frisky Elody (Medalion Rahimi), in the back. And when the day rewinds to 6:30 a.m., the tyrannical carpool reconvenes to once again — and again and again and again — drive to school and relive the same dramas: who will get the most roses on Cupid Day, what does Sam need to know before losing her V-card to her bonehead boyfriend (Kian Lawley), and what is up with class freak Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris), a crazy-haired blonde they've dubbed “Norma Bates”?
Before I Fall is a simple smash-up of Mean Girls and Groundhog Day, a catchy-enough idea that makes you wonder why we haven't blended the Bill Murray comedy with other hits. (Die Hard, anyone?) Oliver dashed off most of the novel on a Blackberry during her subway commute when she wasn't many years out of high school herself. The book has a wicked zing, an unsparing awareness that Sam knows she's a privileged monster — and loves it. Her idea of a good deed is allowing a lesser girl to give her a pen. Nerd cooties, ew.
“It's nice that everything's easy for us,” Sam beams, and Russo-Young opens her film with a montage of the girls lazily wasting time as though they expect to sparkle forever. Day after day, Sam realizes that none of the nonsense they care about ultimately matters. Who cares if your mascara is perfect when you're going to die? Why not seize a chance to dress like a freak or kiss a dork? As Sam starts to catch a conscience, she asks her friends, “What do you think people will say about you when you die?” Grins Lindsay, “That we were fucking hot!” After months of Fridays, that's just not enough.
Sage's Lindsay is such a fabulous villain that I wish the film was about her. She throws drinks at keggers, heckles Juliet in the lunch hall, and scares even her best friends into submission. Now, there's a girl who could learn a lesson. Hanger-on Sam is merely mean by proxy. She'd never be first to fling a beer. Being spineless is its own form of evil, yet Russo-Young makes her such a languid, lovely waif that you forgive her as soon as she smiles. We could never imagine her dashing off insults from the book like, say, calling special ed kids “the short bus brigade.”
The film doesn't trust Deutch to complete the full redemption arc from sinner to saint, which is, you know, the point of the script. She's a marshmallow from minute one, and that's a shame because Deutch is capable of being a real pistol. Check her out in Vampire Academy, in which she channels a 1940s ball-busting dame, the kind of girl who pops wisecracks like the world is her target. Here, Sam's main character trait is being so pretty she seems airbrushed. We're gonna need more to give a damn.
The trouble with centering the story on a follower like Sam is that she's just not selfish or self-defined enough to truly change. After months of practice learning to be a better person, she's still a people-pleaser — she's just pleasing nicer folks (including her longtime crush, who's a bit of a stalker-creep). The only surprise is that, to the movie's credit, it never casts aside bad influences like Lindsay and the ladies. Sam stays loyal to her friends. To her, they're not just cartoon bitches, and over time, we see their humanity, too. By the end of this silly, sappy, emotional steamroller, we've softened enough to hope even mean queen Lindsay's life gets better after high school. Everyone deserves a chance to improve.