Groundhog Day premiered in 1992, but it took over two decades for time loop movies to really become a fad. According to Wikipedia, almost forty time loop movies have released in the past ten years. From my perspective, this is unequivocally a good thing. Time loop stories are one of my weaknesses. I find almost all time loop movies to be immensely interesting, a natural way to poke at the edges of the human condition while still allowing for deep character growth in a slightly cheesy sci-fi package.
One specimen from the glut is Before I Fall from 2017. It’s an adaptation of a hit young adult novel of the same name starring Zoey Deutch as Sam in the Phil Connors role. Here’s the pitch: time loop but an angsty teen drama.
It’s not exactly the high-point of the time loop trend: The pacing and character writing are both occasionally uneven. Worst of all, the ending defies all logical reasoning and just asks you to go with its operatic flourish.
And yet this is still a movie that, at a fundamental storytelling level, just works. It’s compelling pretty much from start to finish. And that’s because time loops are a miraculously good fit for teen angst. Maybe not quite as good as midlife crises are (see, again, Groundhog Day), but close. In fact, time loops match teen drama for almost the exact opposite reason as adult ennui: In Groundhog Day, Phil is confronting a drifting, unchanging life. The monotony of adult-onset depression becomes literalized with his repeating day. In Before I Fall, Sam is punch-drunk from too many changes in her life happening too fast that have boxed her into a “mean girl” persona.
A single day replayed over and over forces her to confront everything in flux in her life. Her slipping innocence and house of cards mental health are slowly unspooled. In a repeated Valentine’s Day that ends with a drunk driving accident, she gets to try out different personalities and identities until she finds one that fits. And if that’s not the meaning of growing up in a nutshell, I’m not sure what is.
Before I Fall, unlike most other time loop movies, leaves very little room for levity or silliness. It’s a heavy story and that’s matched by the steely production. The color scheme is dominated by grays and blues, and director Ry Russo-Young includes plenty of shots of cloudy skies and rainy puddles on asphalt for mood. The soundtrack, which is utterly drowning in pop songs (I stopped counting when we hit 15) is all icy electronica and jittery anthems. No sunniness in earshot.
The film’s thematic heft is carried by some sturdy acting. Deutsch has become one of my favorite young actors. I always look forward to seeing the dynamic energy and sharp wit she brings to each performance, including this one. The supporting cast is quite good, especially Halston Sage, as Lindsay, the bitchy, best friend, who is very obviously using her sharp edges as a defense mechanism for some unresolved demons. Sage threads the needle of conveying all of that without being too on the nose about it, still convincingly both a bruised human and a devoted friend. Logan Miller some earnest gawkiness to perhaps the least neurotic role he’s ever played, romantic interest Kent. He’s a bit underserved by the writing, though, which paints him into a pathetic, “nice guy” corner that is one of the only threads of the film that flat-out does not work.
The one outright acting misfire is Elena Kampouris as the depressed Juliet Sykes, whose breakdown serves as a key event of the repeated day. Kampouris plays the role like she’s in an overcooked stage drama in a turn that does not tonally fit in with the rest of the film.
One of the challenges of the time loop story template is figuring out how the story ends. How does the protagonist escape their hell? It’s a lot easier to come up with an unsatisfying answer than a satisfying one. Alternately, you might just end up, feeling like even more of a Groundhog Day rip off where the character has to learn some lesson for the magic to undo. Before I Fall opts for an excessively dramatic option that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Then again, time loops don’t make a whole lot of sense, so whatever. Ending with an over-the-top teen drama swing fits. The movie wants you to feel sad; I was mostly baffled both at the logistics of the final twist and the thematic ramifications.
Oh well. I was still basking in the good stuff of the movie, the way it dissects the highs and lows of the teenage experience with its story structure, that I didn’t let it bother me too much. It’s a solid film, occasionally clever and usually fun, satisfying right up until it all of the sudden isn’t, and the credits roll.