In some ways, the premise of Before I Fall sounds a bit like a horror movie plot: Groundhog Day, but set in high school. For some of us, the idea of reliving a single day in high school over and over and over again sounds like a particularly vicious form of hell. Instead, the film adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s bestselling YA novel takes a far more serious approach, delivering a teen melodrama that’s steeped in clichés but still has an unexpectedly poignant message.
Zoey Deutch (a standout in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!) plays Sam, a practically perfect teenage girl who’s gorgeous, popular, and kind of mean. She spends most of her time hanging out with her mean girl friends and daydreaming about how she’s going to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Rob (YouTuber Kian Lawley). She’s part of a quartet of queen bees who all look like an aspirational Instagram feed come to life, led by Halston Sage as Sam’s domineering best friend Lindsay. They’re all fairly self-absorbed, particularly mocking their outcast classmate Juliet (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2’s Elena Kampouris), and as self-described “bitches,” Sam, Lindsay, and company walk into school on Feb. 12 expecting to be showered in roses from their peers as part of the school’s “Cupid Day.” Later that night, they head to a classmate’s house for a party, only for the night to end in tragedy as Lindsay’s car flips on the way home, killing all four girls.
Except Sam immediately wakes up in her own bed, unharmed and right back where she started on Feb. 12. Her friends and family are completely oblivious, but she soon realizes that something’s off. She tries every possible combination of events, hoping to get her timeline back on track, but no matter what she does—skipping the party, being nice to everyone she meets, slathering on the black eyeliner and going rebel—she’s still stuck on Feb. 12.
Before I Fall is essentially your standard high school drama about learning who you are and being nice to people, but Deutch gives Sam a humanity and a depth that elevate her beyond most teenage protagonists. Although Sam is stuck reliving the same day over and over again, it never gets repetitive, as director Ry Russo-Young slowly reveals new layers to Sam’s personality. She can be cruel, thoughtful, insecure, and self-obsessed all at once. It’s a shame, however, that the other characters aren’t as multifaceted as Sam. Lindsay gets a little bit of a backstory that explains why she’s so prickly, and Logan Miller is charming as the classmate who’s been harboring a crush on Sam for years, but for the most part, Sam is surrounded by an entire high school’s worth of stock characters and clichés, from the bro-ish boyfriend to the wild-haired outcast.
It isn’t hard to guess that the key to unlocking Sam’s time loop is learning some sort of life lesson, and although romance is definitely a plot point, it’s refreshingly not portrayed as the ultimate answer to all of Sam’s problems. Instead, Before I Fall is a surprisingly thoughtful story that strives to say something more, even as it leans hard into traditional YA tropes. B–