For those of us whose high school careers were spent orbiting the outskirts of the cafeteria, the premise of Before I Fall is an irresistible one. The camera boldly ventures into uncharted territory: inside the head of a popular girl. And not just a popular girl, but a mean girl.
This YA book turned movie asks whether the villain of a high school can be the sympathetic protagonist of a film. I came around eventually, but let me say that it took me a while to not respond to Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch) and her three “best friends” with anything but utter revilement.
Sam, the 17-year-old queen bee at the helm of this drama, wakes up at the start of the movie with a sassy text from her best friend, as all popular girls must. The entire wall of her room is plastered with developed Snapchat screenshots and “candid” pics of her with her friends. She gets ready for school with the grave seriousness of Liz Taylor before the Oscars. On her way out the door, she treats her little sister, mother, and father like they are serfs.
All in a day’s work for a high school senior. Already, I was recoiling.
The squirming only increased when Sam gets into her best friend Lindsay’s too-big SUV, and they hurtle down damp winding roads of the Pacific Northwest. Lindsay (Halston Sage) picks up each clique member with a shriek, as if they’d been separated for centuries and not hours. In typical teenage rhetoric, the girls exchange affection masquerading as insults. Linds, as everyone calls her, blasts pop music, and they sing along as if it weren’t a song but a revelation.
By the time Sam’s shriek-mobile pulls into the high school parking lot, I’ve pretty much broken out into hives. It’s like the ghost of high school has suddenly awoken and reminded me of a species of girl I thought was extinct. I realize, now, that these girls are alive, well, and basking in self-importance. While I’ve expunged them from my life, they’re still roaming hallways of high schools everywhere in impenetrable packs of four and five.
With laser focus, Sam’s group preys on Juliet (Elena Kampouris), the bushy-haired artist who’s been the butt of the cliques’ jokes since elementary school. As a result of their relentless bullying, a friendless Juliet grapples with depression. The girls show no remorse as they write her mean notes and toss drinks on her at a party. It’s a seriously uncomfortable scene, and it’s supposed to be.
That brings us to the gist of Before I Fall: teaching a mean girl the error of her ways. Trapped in her Groundhog Day-esque hell following a car accident, Sam must face consequences of her casual cruelty in order to break the cycle. Sam's forced to repeat February 12 over and over again until she finds a better way to live.
In the process, Sam gives the nerdy guy a chance. She reaches out to her kid sister. She saves Juliet’s life. All in all, Sam makes kindness kinda cool.
But had Sam not been given this metaphysical opportunity to right her wrongs, had she never been in a car accident, she’d just keep being mean — and probably having a blast doing so.
And that’s the scariest part of the girls in Before I Fall. Sam, Lindsay, Elody (Medalion Rahimi), and Allison (Cynthy Wu) are just normal girls, whose boredom and yearning and insecurity — combined with just the right amount of beauty — leads to cruelty.
No — Sam and her friends dismally ordinary. That’s what makes their casual bullying all the more alarming, and what makes Sam’s eventual redemption more moving.
Before I Fall opens in theaters on Friday, March 3.