The elevator pitch was about all I knew of Before I Fall when I walked into the screening. I expected something cutesy and a bit saccharine. And what I saw was emotionally manipulative — every single minute of it was engineered to build to an ending that was meant to be tragic and cathartic. But here’s the problem. Before I Fall lost me long before that journey even started.
You see, the thing about stories of redemption is that your protagonist is supposed to be dynamic, flawed, but not alienating. Imperfect, but not irredeemable. Imagine the worst kind of girl you knew in high school. The girls who cackle at unfunny remarks tossed like so many grenades at other girls. The ones who travel in packs, greet each other with shrieks of “hey, slut,” and exist under an unrelenting fog of certainty that everyone else is fascinated by them. (Spoiler alert: no one has time to worry about any one else in high school). As it’s put to Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network — it’s not that they are necessarily assholes, it’s that they try so hard to be assholes. That’s Samantha (Zoey Deutch), the intended heroine of Before I Fall, and her trio of terrible compatriots. If these girls ever saw Heathers or Carrie or Mean Girls, they gravely misread those pictures. So instead of acting like decent human beings, they torture one of their classmates (and have done so for so long that they no longer remember why) and collect Valentine’s flower grams like every rose is validation for them and damnation for those who weren’t revered enough.
I could go on listing examples like these, or speculate what slapping these girls with an empathy stick would do to their treatment of everyone around them, or examining some of the more cringeworthy characterizations, but all of that is beyond the point, as are the details of Sam’s journey. Here’s the only thing that really matters with respect to Before I Fall, if I were watching it on TV or even in theater where I wasn’t bound to stick it out as a reviewer, I would have quit this movie long before it could ever attempt to bring me into Sam’s redemption arc — probably even before we hit the inciting incident that forces Sam to slowly, painfully re-evaluate the facts of her life — because I simply could not force myself to care about the “heroes” in this story. If not for this deus ex machina that forms the whole story, it’s safe to assume no such transformation would have occurred. As it is, that would-be catharsis lands with a thud.
And I write all of this as someone who loves a good villain. Give me Regina George and Taylor Vaughn and the Heathers all day. I’ll relish their barbs and delight in their defeat. I’ve written on this site about Laguna Beach-era Kristin Cavalari as the reality check her female cast mates needed. But never forget that Amber, the dress-snatching snob from Clueless isn’t the hero for a reason.
For someone relatively young, I’ve always been old. So it’s possible that Before I Fall could catch fire with the tween set. But if you’re old enough to know that applying dark eyeliner is not a transformative or rebellious gesture, don’t bother watching this movie. If you must, take solace in the gorgeous houses and landscapes — you’ll find the beauty of the Pacific Northwest can’t be marred by this nonsense.