“Before I Fall” tells the story of a teenager named Samantha who, like a younger female version of Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day,” is forced to relive the same 24-hour period over and over again. It begins with a rude awakening, proceeds through a gantlet of giggles, builds to a wild keg party and then ends with a deadly car crash — only to suddenly rewind itself and start all over again.
“Sisyphus!” Sam’s English teacher declares early on, underlining the name on the chalkboard for good measure. It’s one of many early indicators — Sam’s pensive, wall-to-wall voice-over is another — that “Before I Fall,” adapted by Maria Maggenti from a popular novel by Lauren Oliver, will not be the subtlest of movies.
Then again, the recent classics of romantic young-adult fiction and the glossy, tear-streaked cinema they have inspired are not exactly cherished for their subtlety in the first place. Criticizing this movie for being on the nose is a bit like criticizing it for being shot in color (as it is, in lovely, moody shades of gray, by cinematographer Michael Fimognari). Like the recent “The Fault in Our Stars” and (to a lesser extent) “If I Stay,” “Before I Fall” will almost certainly be dismissed as a guilty pleasure given its goopily earnest tone and its willingness to turn untimely death into the subject of a morose, masochistic fantasy.
And yet it’s without a shred of guilt that I say there is honest pleasure to be found in “Before I Fall,” which takes an unapologetically silly conceit and wrings from it a surprisingly nimble and affecting survey of contemporary teenage attitudes and anxieties. As in “Groundhog Day,” “Freaky Friday” or any number of supernaturally inflected comedies, a crazy, never-explained premise provides the framework for a sincerely felt plea for kindness and understanding.
Sam, engagingly played by Zoey Deutch (“Everybody Wants Some!!”), may have cleaner pores and a more attentive stylist than most kids her age. But she also has the full complement of relatable teen accessories: a loving mother (Jennifer Beals) she sometimes argues with, a sweet younger sister (Erica Tremblay) who gets on her nerves, and three close girlfriends — Lindsay (Halston Sage), Ally (Cynthy Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi) — whose fun-loving banter acts as a bubbly front for their private irritations and insecurities.
Tough and mean, but also protective and maternal, Lindsay is the queen bee of this gossipy hive, though given the movie’s target demographic, it might be more helpful to describe her as its resident Regina George. Which I suppose makes Sam its Cady Heron — the well-meaning protagonist who too often finds herself going along with her friends’ thoughtless bullying. And once Sam recovers from the shock of seeing time repeat itself — a phenomenon that she alone seems to be aware of — she soon realizes that only her actions, specifically the ways she treats those around her, will be able to break the cycle.
The day in question — magically stretched out to just under 100 minutes of screen time — happens to be the Friday before Valentine’s Day, and thus an opportunity for the already stark divisions between the high-school haves and have-nots to further announce themselves. Sam, being both pretty and popular, receives long-stemmed roses from several admirers, including her horny jerk of a boyfriend, Rob (Kian Lawley), and Kent (Logan Miller), the sweet, awkward kid who’s been crushing on her for years.
No roses, alas, are forthcoming for Anna (Liv Hewson), a lesbian who hides out in the bathroom and is regularly singled out for mockery by Lindsay and her posse. Even more viciously persecuted is Juliet (Elena Kampouris), a loner with desperately sad eyes, wildly unkempt hair and a sketchbook full of her own disturbing black-and-white artwork.
As I said: not the subtlest of movies. You could argue that “Before I Fall” makes the mistake of stressing empathy over empowerment, and that a more radically courageous version of the story would have done more to include Juliet’s perspective. But that would be antithetical to the movie’s lesson, which is that it’s Sam’s duty, and the duty of anyone even tacitly complicit in the misery of others, to take the first steps toward reconciliation and healing.
This isn’t the first time the director, Ry Russo-Young, has trained her camera on the misadventures of young women behaving badly — something she did to rougher, wilder effect in her independent features “Nobody Walks” and “You Won’t Miss Me.” “Before I Fall” may be a slicker, more youthful and commercially visible piece of work, but the extent to which the director has retained both her sensibility and her sensitivity gives the movie a pleasing, distinctive shape.
Its cheeky philosophical premise is that the scarcity of time, with its inexorable forward motion, is ironically what keeps most of us from living each moment to the fullest. And its conclusion — that perfection in life can be achieved only with repetition and omniscience — is both pleasurable on a narrative level and poignant on a philosophical one.
Which is not to suggest that watching “Before I Fall” is an experience that necessarily bears repeating. Especially if, like me, you find yourself unexpectedly falling for it the first time.
‘Before I Fall’
MPAA rating: PG-13, for mature thematic content involving drinking, sexuality, bullying, some violent images and language — all involving teens
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: In general release