The easy way to talk about “Before I Fall” is to say it’s a teen angst version of “Groundhog Day.” That simple shorthand comes from the fact that the central figure of Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) lives the final day of her life repeatedly.
Playing out a single day with multiple variations creates both some funny and serious moments the same way “Groundhog Day” did. But a better way to describe “Before I Fall” is that it is a representation of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Using that framework makes the screenplay by Maria Maggenti (based on the book of the same name by Lauren Oliver) far more compelling. It elevates what could have been dismissed as a teen dramedy into a story that is emotionally strong.
What makes the story work is Deutch. Because her character goes through so many transformations during the continuing day, the young actor must be able to play everything from the snarkiest teen this side of “Mean Girls” to a caring friend. Her work in both is equally strong.
Samantha and her three friends are at the center of the popularity vortex at school. They can ruin a person’s life with only a few random comments and can turn the heads of the hunkiest guys. They live a life of privilege limited only by their own wants and desires.
That all ends one tragic night in a fatal car crash. What Samantha initially believes was just a bad dream ends up being the trigger for her having to keep reliving the last day of her life. She will be stuck in this loop unless she can find the way to redeem herself.
The success of “Before I Fall” comes entirely from Deutch. Her performance, the kind that can elevate an actor’s status quickly, easily shifts and changes to fit the status of her character going from a social brat to a loving daughter.
It’s easy to see the complicated work Deutch had to do because of the transformations her character goes through. There are equally strong supporting players who can easily be overlooked because of the nature of the story. Halston Sage, who plays the best friend to Samantha, must find smaller nuances to play her role since her character is not aware of the repeating days. She manages to make even the multiple times she delivers a line sound fresh.
A lot of that comes from director Ry Russo-Young. She takes the repeating-day format and gives each turn of the calendar an original feel. It’s not an easy task to make a movie like this and keep an audience from being lulled into a trance by the repetitiveness.
The biggest problem with the film version of “Before I Fall” is the ending. Without giving away too much detail, the final solution may seem to be a happy ending, but closer examination shows that the story is still rife with pain and sorrow.
That flaw doesn’t distract from the beautiful performance by Deutch. She handles a complicated role with ease and energy. Keep an eye on Deutch because if she keeps repeating this kind of work, she’s headed for a great career.