There’s a reason Zoey Deutch is often “the girl” in comedies. Her face expresses multitudes, and the funny guys need a woman with priceless reactions to sell their punch lines. She’s endured dick jokes for Robert De Niro and Zac Efron in Dirty Grandpa, played oblivious straight woman to the crew of Everybody Wants Some!!, smiled shyly for James Franco in Why Him? and is set to deliver some serious raised eyebrows for the cast of Franco’s upcoming The Disaster Artist. But first, in Ry Russo-Young’s light sci-fi teen drama Before I Fall, Deutch plays Samantha Kingston, a girl full of thoughts and wonder who learns the meaning of life by reliving the same fateful 24 hours over and over again.
Deutch owes no one a reaction here; everything Samantha does is to fulfill her own promise. And if that premise sounds morally didactic, too neat, it is a little. But Russo-Young gives this teen parable the thriller treatment to ward off any cheese, and watching Deutch learn her lesson with that expressive face of hers is a singular, moving experience.
In a wealthy Seattle suburb, high schooler Samantha awakens with a bright smile on “Cupid Day” and descends the glass-and-steel staircase of her parents’ modern home. She’s fresh, beautiful and just cranky enough to be realistic. To her friends, Sam’s the sweet one — Lindsay (Halston Sage) is the queen bee, Ally (Cynthy Wu) the creative thinker, Elody (Medalion Rahimi) the party girl. As the girls make their trek to school, Russo-Young builds mood by borrowing from The Shining with slow-panning aerial shots of the snow-capped mountains in the distance and multiple gorgeous frames that track Lindsay’s SUV from the sky as it snakes up a winding road.
Sam’s a bundle of excitement at school, awaiting her special night with Rob (Kian Lawley), who gets her a rose with a passive-aggressive negging card: “You happy now?” In true teenager fashion, she falls for it — Rob’s a dick, but as Lindsay reminds Sam, everybody wants to hook up with him. In the early moments of naiveté, Deutch’s performance suggests both Ellen Page and Rosamund Pike; her eyes glance downward, like she can’t bear to meet anyone’s gaze while thinking something so private, so intimate.
Throughout the day, Sam makes one little mistake after another: She ignores nice guy Kent (Logan Miller) when he gives her a rose and a sweet (but kinda creepy) card; she quietly encourages her friends as they taunt the school freak, Juliet (Elena Kampouris); she takes bully Lindsay’s side when she justifies snapping some incriminating video of a lesbian classmate named Anna (Liv Hewson). The night culminates with a raucous party at Kent’s house, where everything that could go wrong does, capped by Sam and her friends getting into a terrible car crash.
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If you’ve seen Groundhog Day, you know how the story goes from here: Girl wakes up to the same alarm song every day and must spend the rest of the film trying to correct the error of her ways to break out of the pattern. The familiar premise is freshened by writer Maria Maggenti’s thoughtful framing of Sam. She’s not the ultimate mean girl who needs to learn a lesson. She’s just careless, floating along without any comprehension that her actions contribute to the detriment or well-being of others. At one point, her adorable little sis Izzy (Erica Tremblay) asks Sam why she’s so mean to their mom (Jennifer Beals), and all Sam can say is, “Am I?”
As the day repeats itself, Russo-Young breaks out of the wide group shots to zero in on Deutch’s face, and this is where the magic begins. When she becomes convinced that nothing she does will ever matter, Sam gets a little goth in a vampy black getup and gives Lindsay a stern come-to-Jesus moment, calling out her friend’s cruelty to others. Deutch’s jaw jerks right then left before she bites her lip hard and then lays into Lindsay even more. She’s no longer glancing downward; she’s shooting goddamned bullets from those round brown eyes. But the most commanding moments of this film aren’t when Deutch is playing fed-up. It’s when she’s exuding pure love.
On the final day of her final day, Sam is glowing with a quiet confidence. The repetition of that 24 hours has become a gift inspiring her to more intimately know her family and friends, even if none of them remember the encounters. Sam embraces Izzy with all this secret knowledge locked away in her brain, aware that they may never see one another again, and the moment proves so powerful that I wasn’t the only one sniffling in the theater. Deutch conveys rare tenderness without even speaking — it’s all plainly painted in the uneasy smile lines at the corners of her eyes.
Too bad Before I Fall doesn’t end there. With so much to love in this story, I’m disappointed that the nonsensical last 60 seconds of the film nearly undermine what’s most skillfully executed. Still, Russo-Young’s choice to go in close-up and let Deutch carry her scenes is admirable. This director doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of teenage life, which may be why she chose veteran horror cinematographer Michael Fimognari (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Oculus) to lens the film. Together, this team comes up with some breath-catching scenes that take full advantage of the story’s almost mystical Pacific Northwest locale for a movie that never sells its teen audiences short. Except for that pesky last minute.