Before I Fall made me hate #teenz.
No, not teenagers. Teenagers are fascinating and prickly, and movies and TV shows about them are among my favorite fictions out there. (See: 2016’s exemplary teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen.)
I mean #teenz, hashtag and all. You know the ones. They’re blithe and arrogant, uncaring and affluent. They live in gigantic houses with spacious bedrooms, and their parents barely seem to exist. They’re constantly on their phones, but the way they use said phones rarely seems to track with how people actually use social media.
They’re meant to be aspirational figures, these #teenz. If only you were beautiful and rich, they assure real, pimply, allowance- or paycheck-straining teenagers (if they have an allowance or paycheck at all), you would have a more interesting, more exciting life.
But they never feel like real human beings, which makes the weird, paranormal adventures that Before I Fall sends them on harder to stomach. And that makes Before I Fall a deeply dull, deeply confused movie.
What if Groundhog Day starred a teenage mean girl?
In Before I Fall, mean-girl Samantha — Sammy to her friends — hopes to prove victorious during her school’s “Cupid Day,” which takes place on February 12 and is apparently a popularity contest that involves seeing which girl can receive the most roses. At evening’s end, as she and her mean-girl friends leave a party, they’re in a car accident that apparently kills her.
But instead of waking up in heaven or hell or purgatory or the reincarnated form of a garden snail, Samantha wakes up once again on the morning of February 12. You might have questions: How is this happening? What will stop it from happening? How will Samantha learn to be a better person? Did Lauren Oliver, the woman who wrote the novel that Before I Fall is based on, come up with the date in the film by casting about for other major, non-Valentine’s Day February holidays that aren’t Groundhog Day? Could I write a movie called President’s Day borrowing the same “one day repeated over and over” trope?
Anyway, what follows is pretty ridiculous. Obviously Samantha needs to become a better person and remember that she has a good heart beneath her callous bad behavior. But the problem is that Samantha isn’t actually that bad of a person. Remember how Bill Murray was a real asshole in the early going in Groundhog Day? Samantha is just kinda superficial and mean here and there. Her transformation doesn’t take her from A to Z. It takes her from A to italicized A in a slightly larger typeface.
Supposedly, Samantha’s journey is through the five stages of grief, toward acceptance of what could mean her own death. I know this not because the film presents it very well, but because I read the source novel’s Wikipedia page, where it’s listed as a theme. I won’t tell you if she dies or not, just that she needs to grow comfortable with the idea of dying, and with having lived a life that she’ll be okay leaving behind.
But turning a life around in one day is empty of meaning if it’s motivated only by impending death. What if she does die? Do the people in her life remember her as “sorta mean, up until she was a little bit nicer on the last day of her life”? The metaphysics of the film keep tripping me up.
There are a few things worth liking here. The key word being “few.”
Before I Fall has a bunch of good ideas to work with. In particular, I like the way the film (scripted by Maria Maggenti, from the novel) makes sure to indicate that everybody in the story — from mean-girl queen bee to outcast loser — has an inner life. Granted, it does this in text so blatant you can’t possibly miss it, but that’s forgivable in a story about teenagers, who often live their lives in highlighter yellow.
And I really liked lead actress Zoey Deutch in the role of Samantha, because she gives the character an arc that’s more suggested than real. I also liked Elena Kampouris as the school’s outcast, not because I thought her performance was good, but because it was so weird that it seemed like director Ry Russo-Young didn’t know what to do with it. It’s a tonal misfire, but it also made me think a bit of how all over the place young Nicolas Cage could be. So maybe that’s worth something?
But everything else about this movie keeps bringing me back to the #teenz. Before I Fall isn’t real so much as a hermetically sealed experiment. The characters don’t exist to feel like real people; they exist to teach Samantha lessons. They have wealth-porn-y lives so that the film’s target audience can both covet what they have and realize that having things isn’t the same as having values.
But the way these ideas are presented isn’t likely to challenge anyone or inspire self-reflection. This is vapid stuff, created not for real teenagers but for anyone who’s ever spent time thinking about how to craft their personal brand to better attract #teenz on the Snapchat or the Myspace.
Before I Fall is playing in theaters everywhere. Take your local #teenz.