Death is an intriguing concept: it’s inevitable, yet we don’t know much about it until it eventually happens. Will the world just fall silent and go dark? Will we know that it’s coming, or will it be instant? For me, death is a concept that the Netflix original film Before I Fall successfully approaches. Our protagonist, seventeen-year-old Samantha (Zoey Deutch), has no idea that 12 February will be the last day she lives—except of course for the inescapable Groundhog Day-esque repeats. It is tragic that she’s so young, but more so when you realise the extent her and her friends’ actions affected others.
Released in 2017 and directed by Ry Russo-Young—also known for her work on 2019’s The Sun Is Also A Star—Before I Fall is the adaptation of the namesake novel by Lauren Oliver, following four obnoxious seniors as they come to the close of high school. Queen Bee Lindsay and her mean girl posse of Elody, Ally and Samantha dominate the school with their pristine locks and glossed lips in quintessential high-school–drama style. Every day, they strut down the halls, aiming to have the perfect relationships, attend the biggest parties and ultimately be ‘popular’. Car rides to school entail rowdy exclamations and quips between the girls, and of course the discussion of Sam’s ‘opening night’ into womanhood. Of course, these shallow high school stereotypes wouldn’t be complete without the lack of care towards their peers, namely Juliet ‘Psycho’ Sykes (Elena Kampouris). Being oblivious to the true extent of their actions, they subject Sykes to a twisted tradition of a single red valentine’s rose and snarky note used to accentuate her outcast status, alongside the tirade of continuous remarks.
With its ensemble of privileged and popular senior girls, this film could easily be labelled as your typical high school chick flick like Mean Girls or Clueless. Featuring the fictional craze of ‘Cupid’s day’ as a replacement Valentine’s, girls strive to enhance their popularity and indulge in the superficiality of this ‘heteronormative hell’. The sought-out roses become almost as essential as our protagonists to the movement of the plot, acting as a subtle motif to convey the film’s underlying message regarding popularity. The variation in cinematography from bright to stark, as the limbo-like days progress, creates a clear transition in Sam’s personality from naïve to self-aware.
Yet where Mean Girls revels in its humour, Before I Fall is sincere in its dedication towards not romanticising popularity. It succeeds in tackling the long-term impacts of bullying and the crippling effects it has on a person’s psyche. Suicide is never glossed over or avoided as a subject. It’s not a light-hearted depiction of adolescence, but instead a sombre contemplation of morality. How would you act in Sam’s place? Would you flirt with your wild side and avoid consequences, or would you yearn to mend relationships with your family and those you’ve potentially wronged?
Overall, the cast executes a powerful performance regarding the aspects of bullying. Where Sam is almost insufferable in her self-absorbed bystander complex at the beginning, you truly understand her by the end. Though, of course, it’s a tearjerker. The portrayal of high school—while amplified to immerse viewers—feels authentic. Without the slow-motion walks through the hallways, our quartet are the embodiment of individuals we’ve probably all encountered in our lives: I can certainly name a few. The depictions are so accurate that it makes you internally cringe watching the bullying on-screen. I could see this easily occurring at the back of my high school field or in the cafeteria or by the lockers. For once, it feels like an insight into teenage life instead of a glamourized depiction where the girl gets the guy and there are no consequences.
Michael Fimognari’s cinematography is a standout, capturing the emotion and ambience of every passing scene, especially the sombre tones and panning views of the Pacific Northwest as seen in the car journeys. The palette of greys and blues against the mountainous scenery is simultaneously haunting and mystical. The closing montage with its snapshots of life is heart-wrenching, and the voice over is powerful and effective in reminding you that your life and how you use it matters. What would you miss in death?
Ultimately, Before I Fall is reminiscent of past teen movies, but it is also a successful and moving piece dedicated to learning to better ourselves and our ways. Samantha’s death may have been inevitable from the start, but it is not the main message to take; the message it was to live for yourself and not for other people. Don’t stop horse riding because it’s not acceptable for your social status. Don’t ignore your family because it’s deemed as the norm. Whether you have 1000 or 3000 or 10 tomorrows left, what you do matters into the moment and maybe into infinity.
Watch Before I Fall on Netflix.
Words by Emilia Butcher-Marroqui
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