Groundhog Day in high school: Reliving teen angst proves effective in new drama about growing up
Gen Xers who still have a hard time grasping that all the cool, disaffected icons of their youth (Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, Kyra Sedgwick, to name a few) are cast as parents now — and of teenagers no less — will be especially disconcerted by Before I Fall, a teen drama in which the lead actress looks remarkably familiar. Sure, Zoey Deutch had the one major female role in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! last year, but that’s not it. If “Miss Amanda Jones” plays in your head when you see young Zoey on screen, it’s because she’s an absolute dead ringer for the ultimate popular ‘80s It Girl herself: Lea Thompson, who has passed the torch of teen angst on to her millennial daughter.
But Deutch’s physical similarity to her former teen movie star mother isn’t just the only reason Before I Fall has an overall palpable familiarity. The film, based on a 2010 young adult novel by Lauren Oliver with a screenplay by Maria Maggenti, might best be described as Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls, with elements of the 2014 YA film If I Stay and the classic teen horror/revenge flick Carrie thrown in for good measure. As assuredly directed by Ry Russo-Young (a co-writer with Lena Dunham of the 2012 Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominated indie film Nobody Walks), though, Before I Fall manages to hold its own as a fresh and original high school narrative, despite its blatant and unapologetic influences.
Deutch’s protagonist Sam is part of a quartet of slightly mean, too-cool-for-school seniors led by alpha dog Lindsay (Halston Sage, essentially channeling Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls). One night just before Valentine’s Day, the girls are in a car accident, and the next morning Sam awakens to find herself reliving the day leading up to the accident again – and again the next day, and again the day after that. Yes, it’s Groundhog Day all over again, only with Bill Murray’s misanthropic, comically acerbic weatherman replaced by a moody, peer pressure prone, confused high schooler who’s afraid to stand up to her more overtly cruel and often shallow friends.
Both Murray’s Phil and Deutch’s Sam have the same struggle: how to make each exactly-the-same day fulfilling, bright, and meaningful, and, ultimately, how to find a way to break free of the curse. Russo-Young and Maggenti do make one eye-rolling misstep as they illustrate this point, however; in one of the classroom scenes, Sam and her fellow students are studying the myth of Sisyphus. The metaphor of the Greek king who has to spend eternity doing the same task every day is heavy handed and obvious, and doesn’t show much respect for the viewers’ intelligence.
But as Sam, unlike Sisyphus, and much like Murray’s Phil, tries out new tactics for dealing with each day – from rebellion and apathy to selflessness and generosity of spirit – we are reminded of the painfulness that can accompany growing up. As Sam makes choices about how to treat not only Lindsay and their other two best friends (Cynthy Wu and Medalion Rahimi), but also a shy admirer (Logan Miller), Sam’s little sister, and her mother (Jennifer Beals, in another casting move Gen Xers will have to wrap their heads around), and, most especially, Juliet, a former childhood friend of Lindsay’s and a current outcast and object of the girls’ scorn, we get a powerful and well-crafted message about being your best self, living in the moment, and treating people as you want to be treated. As played by Elena Kampouris, Juliet calls to mind not just Sissy Spacek’s Carrie but also Ally Sheedy’s Allison from The Breakfast Club, and Sam’s relationship with her becomes integral to both the film’s unfolding plot and its overarching themes.
While not a perfect movie — Sam’s voice over narration quickly becomes annoying and unnecessary — Russo-Young’s picture, derivative as it is, makes for a unique and entertaining addition to the coming of age genre appropriate for a new generation, who are much more aware of issues like bullying than back in Deutch’s mother’s day, when Amanda Jones just had to deal with the disdain of her friends for dating the poor, artsy kid. Russo-Young takes such timeless youth conflicts and interweaves them with a modern sensibility to create a picture that has an inspiring message about being true to who you are and kind to everyone; the beauty here, though, is that she’s done so in way that never feels preachy or cloying, but always authentic and honest. If Groundhog Day had to meet Mean Girls, there are certainly worse ways such a melding could have turned out than this film, which is bound to resonate with both teenagers and former teens alike. And that pretty much covers all of us.
Before I Fall opens today at Bay Area theaters.