Before I Fall (2017) by Ry Russo-Young
Review by Andrew Swafford
Not everyone will relate, but there’s a small scene in the first act of Before I Fall that is probably going to be planted in this educator’s brain forever. It’s Valentine’s Day, and a 12th grade English teacher is standing before his class attempting to lead a discussion on the Sisyphus myth--but he is interrupted when someone comes to the door to make a delivery of flowers to his students. He waits patiently for the distraction to pass, then tries to get his class’s attention before being interrupted again. He tries a second time, and then a third, but small distractions pervade the room until director Ry Russo-Young graciously cuts to the next scene to spare us the tedium that surely follows.
I bring this up because Before I Fall is a high school movie with a Groundhog Day-like conceit, in which the protagonist, Sam (Zoey Deuch), is inextricably stuck in an infinite loop of reliving one day of her senior year. The trope is familiar, especially just a few years after Edge of Tomorrow (which used the context of a video-game-esque war-zone to great effect), but I would argue that Russo-Young’s film more than justifies its gimmick: the public education system and teen life more generally are both incredibly monotonous and mundane experiences that often feel like living the same day over and over again in a Sisyphean struggle to find purpose. Before I Fall understands this well, and stylishly explores the repetitive nature of routine adolescent life in a way that isn’t being appreciated enough.
Sam is an archetypal “mean girl,” to borrow a probably-slightly-misogynistic common phrase. She looks like a Seventeen magazine cover model, she dates a brick-headed jocky type (while being pursued with flowers by the rest of the male masses), and she participates in sneering gossip and merciless cyber-bullying of the less beautiful ones, following suit with a posse led by a much colder-hearted ice queen who habitually Snapchats her drive to school after picking up Sam from an enormous mid-century modern home. This reading of the films protagonist is solidified through her complicity in a downright cruel act of public humiliation at a party that serves as the culmination of Sam’s infinite Valentine’s Day, and the act is later punished by a deadly event that Sam desperately wants to prevent in future revision.
In the first go-round, Russo-Young’s characterization initially fixes Sam squarely into this well-known type with no nuance, which is intentional here. Like the majority of any student body, Sam is playing a role, blindly following an all-but-scripted set of expectations set by previous generations and coasting through the comfortable orbit of the highest possible social strata. This is a large scale loop, and only by examining it again and again through Before I Fall’s central mechanic does Sam see the arbitrary constructedness of all this, eventually attempting to break the matrix by breaking character.
Before she does, however, the film makes brilliant use of music cues to enhance its own concept. The presence of music here is near-constant (cue after cue after cue after cue), and the synth-pop/electro-R&B/afrobeat vibe pervades the film to give the repetition-heavy narrative a complimentary thump. And the repetition of specific songs enhances the mundanity of Sam’s experience as well, as certain tracks are destined to play in their ordained contexts (the trip to school, the party scene) each time she re-lives the day. The recycling of music cues throughout the film recalls last year’s American Honey by Andrea Arnold, which used an equally redundant aux-cord to communicate the growing weariness of the protagonist’s journey. It certainly works here just as well, and Before I Fall may even take this use of music one step further (I say may because I’d have to rewatch the film to be sure, but I swear I heard this) by slightly augmenting the pitch of one particular well-worn track when Sam has an epiphany about how to change the situation. (I also love the montage set to Kurt Vile’s “Pretty Pimpin,” which uses split screen in a really cool way that feels true-to-concept as well.)
More than just serving the infinite loop conceit, though, the selection of tracks here illustrates character: the soundtrack is practically an anthropological study of a specific subculture of Spotify-era girlhood. These characters don’t listen to the radio; they cycle through recommended tracks on anonymously curated party playlists that include GEMS, Lolawolf, Grimes, Scooter Island, and Shamir. As Jennifer’s Body did with mid-00’s emo mall-rock, Before I Fall utilizes an authentic selection of tracks to immerse its audience into the auditory experience of high school cool kids in its respective era. Sam’s type is not only seen, but heard.
Plenty of films, of course, have observed the overt cliquishness of the teenage power structure long before this one (Mean Girls, notably, has become a modern classic for its skewering of the subject as tribal bloodsport). What makes Before I Fall surprisingly unique, in my view, is the way it points out what should have always been an obvious fact: middle school is a recent memory for the YA crowd, and its echoes carry long into senior year. While most high school narratives treat years 9-12 as a planet unto itself, isolated in deep space, Before I Fall recognizes that this alien experience takes place in a broader context of students’ shared histories, and characters often make reference to relationship-breaking and relationship-forming memories from 6th grade, 7th grade, and even 3rd grade, which eventually resurface in the absolute center of the film’s conflict.
And it felt true to my own childhood spent in a small town that didn’t have a lot of traffic in or out--the seemingly infinite loop of growing up isn’t just about daily tedium or filling intergenerational roles, but also the ever-increasing familiarity of those around us. In such a context, friends are friends by proximity and convenience more than anything else, and it's near-impossible not to slip into the trancelike state of group conformity, even when it results in crowd-ordained cruelty, whether it be out of boredom, sport, or a misguided sense of self-preservation.
It’s well-documented that the teenage brain is still in the process of fully forming, so imagine the hormone-ridden anxiety caused by the lingering presence of decisions made at even earlier stages! That’s the reality, and Before I Fall is the only movie I know of that focuses on this (though Edge of Seventeen flirts with the idea somewhat). Everybody is still dealing with the ghost of their middle school self well into high school and beyond, and in this film, old traumas and repressed feelings just don’t stay dead as we’d like them to.
In a way, the unspoken undercurrent of repressed history makes the film’s Pacific Northwestern suburbia into a Lynchian kind of dual world that recalls Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet (though not nearly as grotesque, of course!). Ry Russo-Young emphasizes this with the slick veneer of the film’s architecture and color scheme. Nearly everything the camera catches is a pale, glassy blue, and all of the surfaces are shimmering and immaculate (think of the way mirrors and windows are depicted in Yi Yi, In the Mood For Love, and Lost in Translation, for example), here presenting a reality that is all surface and no substance--as the substance has been repressed in favor of beautiful affectation. The film’s gorgeously designed theatrical poster compliments this as well, consisting of many high-gloss reflective shots lined up side-by-side to create a clever mirror effect, showing multiple versions of the same reality.
Before I Fall isn’t a perfect film--it has its fair share of cliche moments that may take adult audiences out of the experience--but its overall atmosphere and cohesiveness is compelling and evocative. The unconventional structure eventually got me into a strange, hypnotic rhythm that is really unlike anything else that has come of the YA-film-adaptation-industrial-machine, and it’s cumulative effect is more than enough to make one forget certain Hallmark-y details. Since watching, I’ve felt pulled back into the movie’s weird presence more than a handful of times, and want to give it a rewatch--especially to unpack the ending, which is bolder and more unsettling than any YA film before it. It shouldn’t be spoiled, but I’ll leave you with this: Sam attempts to break the loop through attempting sincerity rather than going through the motions of teenage theatricality--but even that is not enough.
I'm still processing. It’s not a “safe” ending, and this is not really a safe film--it demands more attention and further reflection.