Words by Bobby Vogel
In Ry Russo-Young’s Before I Fall (2017), an adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s novel, Samantha “Sam” Kingston (Zoey Deutch) dies in a car accident. It is a short and visually reticent scene: the car swerves in the dark, the girls jolt against their seatbelts, the windshield shatters, and the sequence cuts to black. It has an abruptness that is only augmented by prior shots of the girls in the car, swaying their heads to the music, mutually grinning at doing it in unison. Sam especially looks delighted: they are entering a kind of post-party hypnagogia, at peace yet about to die. And yet not exactly. When the sequence ends, it cuts, not quite to black, but to a pitch-black darkness, and Sam’s face is in that darkness, pulsating. It’s almost imperceptible, and before we know it, Sam is awake again, in bed. It’s a time-loop film, it turns out, with the charms and limitations of the format: short and discrete segments, repeated situations and characters, predictable moral growth; when Sam wakes up, we can feel it taking over, its engines revving, its propulsive, linear literalness, its inexorability. But there is Sam’s face in the dark, at that very moment, as if to remind us that even the movie’s formal elements beat with the heart of its protagonist.
It is a face, indeed, that does not cease to move. Deutch seems to experience her emotions elastically, as three-dimensional, as shapes or darkened rooms in which she feels about without fear. When Sam hugs her sister Izzy (Erica Tremblay) near the end of the film, she knows she’s going to cry; she hugs her hard, steeling herself slightly, wanting to give a final goodbye remembered for its words not its pain, which is inevitable for Sam but elusive to Izzy. Deutch looks down as she begins the embrace, then up a bit and forward, smiling sadly, then up again faintly, with a sigh: this is a spacious emotion, and the sigh leaks through the resolve as if to say “I can do this.” But the resolve is itself affecting. When Izzy exclaims “I can’t breathe,” Deutch is taken over. Her eyes wince shut, her face crumples into Izzy’s neck, she looks up and seems to breathe out of her throat, now with nothing to look at; lost, she turns inwards, as if hoping to find Izzy’s face there. She loosens her grip: Deutch makes the emotion we were all expecting look shocking and terrible. It’s a surprise not to us but to her. And it’s beyond words, which is how she delivers her next line: coughed and relieved to say anything.
On a day of defiance, her face takes on a paranoid boniness not to be seen in the rest of the film. She is both hardened and raw-looking, leonine at times, hungry but disdainful, as if now only unimpressive things merit her attention.
One often gets the feeling of an immediate openness to everything in the world, a perhaps overly hopeful responsiveness to whatever is in front of her. But she can also look punched, injured, betrayed by it, as she does waking up on her third day: she can turn her own qualities inside out. On a day of defiance, her face takes on a paranoid boniness not to be seen in the rest of the film. She is both hardened and raw-looking, leonine at times, hungry but disdainful, as if now only unimpressive things merit her attention. When she is at her most primal, she is at her most willful: Deutch stops up her own openness, a scavenger now. But what is really interesting and impressive is how quickly it fades away: when she glances at Elody (Medalion Rahimi) twice in the car, with impulsive concern and contrition, for instance. Or that night, when Kent (Logan Miller) tells Sam that he threw his party just for her. She has been crying—she already seems softer, helplessly open—but when Kent confesses his care, she simply looks at him, relaxing. A timorous readiness appears in her eyes, languid, with no need to key up her responses: she looks around the room like her soul is coming back. Yet Deutch does not “go back”—to any of her previous faces—but forward. She looks different and deeper than before.
Russo-Young resembles a Dreyer or Cukor in her ability to see what she has in her woman, in her faith in the human face, in her competence not to waste it, in her daring to fill the screen with it. Deutch has the kind and level of talent that can become a problem for directors: in many of her films—say, a watchable, average one such as Good Kids (2016), or a better one such as Flower (2017)—her expressions are so varied and flexible, so fading-in-and-out-of-themselves, so continuously blooming, that they are not in fact editable; her face does not match her own face from one cut to the next. It would take more than “continuity” to correct this: one has to not only enter into the depth of her feeling but avoid pinning that feeling down, which is what Deutch does as an actor. She lets her feelings twist and shift, permutating the way thoughts do. She seems to make no distinction between thinking and feeling, letting her internal experience wash over her without category, for this is how the world washes over us. She is, nevertheless, disciplined—you can see it in her breath control—and above all a thinking actor. When she looks, she thinks; when her eyes move, her mind moves. It should not go unsaid that she is at her most beautiful when thinking: she might be compared to Wallace Shawn, whose face has the same elastic expressiveness, the same rolling waves, the same wordless commentary to his dialogue such that he almost seems to speak twice when he talks. Is it his face or his words that are redundant? a linguist might ask. But a linguist cuts language off from experience, which is exactly what a thinking actor does not do.
When Sam says she is ready to “do something, something good,” she distorts her mother’s advice, who told her to “focus on that one good thing and…see where it leads you.” Well-meaning but without direction, or any sense of future responsibilities, it is in essence neoliberal.
Sam’s history teacher tries to lecture on Sisyphus throughout the movie, and gets interrupted by “Cupid Day” every time. His questions and the notes on his blackboard are insipid: his job is to dispense information, out of context. He condescends to desire because he lectures in its absence; it is right that a god of love intervenes. When he jokes about STDs, few laugh. When the students’ flowers and love notes arrive, he tells them “relax, it’s just roses.” He can’t see that, with the roses, inner lives are at stake, while his lecture touches no one, especially not Sam: he speaks without insight of what she has experienced. This is brilliantly ironic symbolism, easily misapplied. Sam is not Sisyphus, he is—prevented from discussing what he thereby becomes—while Sam is protected from hearing merely relevant trivia. She is more likely to take the film’s other bit of erudition to heart—Nietzsche’s “become who you are”—if only because it is open-ended, and already happening to her. But her will does not triumph any more than it crumbles. When Sam says she is ready to “do something, something good,” she distorts her mother’s advice, who told her to “focus on that one good thing and…see where it leads you.” Well-meaning but without direction, or any sense of future responsibilities, it is in essence neoliberal. Sam’s “one good thing” is something her mother could not have condoned or imagined.
Sam stares at her past like a collegian gone home. Troubled by stagnancy, disturbed less by its fact than the fact that she sees it, she finds that her longed-for awareness is a burden, that growth is a crutch for the failure of hope. What was inevitable over years is condensed into days: the film is depicting the dawn of adulthood. The cruelty of her friends, the charming lack of seriousness, the playful, drunk bickering, the mockery of virginity, the red light of the party room, its indifferent, pulsing music, the startling pride of Juliet, the truck that passes by, the droplets on the window, the condom in the hand, the burlesque beside the door all suddenly seem malevolent, yet a part of her. Which is how it always goes: the things you throw away linger on in empty spaces. Maria Maggenti’s script makes the girls chatter like the teenagers they are, but it is the resonant, affectionate chatter of friends. Russo-Young lets it fill the odd corners of scenes, and the sound is mixed such that it sounds like chatter; it is part of the background, and yet it is the girls’ foreground, and we feel it as such.
There is iron in Sam’s lines when she bids her friends their goodbyes, as if her words could become statues, as if her laughter were a garden. Speech couldn’t save Juliet, but Sam’s speeches are deeds now.
When the dominant Lindsay (Halston Sage) orders Sam out of her lap with a double tap on the shoulder and a mock-command of obedience, “up,” giving Sam a queenlike nod and striding away, the girls almost ogle her as she goes. They like her so obviously—she is not a “queen bee.” Their friendship is characterized by warmth not servility, demonstrable in the way that they touch each other; if it is a warmth that is cooly returned at times, it is part of her strength and her charm. The thrill of being around Lindsay is to some extent voyeuristic—it is the thrill of being caught in the friendly rose’s own thorns. Her barbs, we come to learn, shun attention as they seek it. When the outcast Juliet (Elena Kampouris) tells Lindsay “you’re a bitch!” with what must seem to Lindsay to be inappropriate intensity, Sage plays her response like the broken archangel she is, forcing a laugh and grinning like she likes the taste of blood. But she hates it, of course, and she is as frightened as Juliet. The girls are reduced to yelling “psycho,” “bitch,” “freak”—name-calling is not an art for most high-schoolers—and Sage’s line reading of “go back to the ward you… psycho bitch!” has genuine emptiness. She reaches out for an epithet that hasn’t yet been said and grasps nothing; at the end of the line she is silent and seething. When Sam asks if she’s okay, we think she’s asking about the present, but Lindsay is caught up in her past, in something she later says happened “a thousand years ago.” Unable to respond, Lindsay, like Juliet, leaves the room.
When the girls share a hug—started by Sam to console a lovelorn Ally (Cynthy Wu)—Lindsay is the last to join: the affection is real but not quite intuitive. She extends her arm past Ally and tries to encompass all the girls, turning a moment of support into one of solidarity. The slight shift in meaning shows up on Sam’s face, who looks away with sudden abstraction: she might not be able to say so yet, but something, she feels, is missing. Lindsay kisses Sam in that scene, and again in Ally’s bathroom, after Sam has just asked about losing one’s virginity. “It hurts,” a truism, is not really helpful, and worse is the remark about Rob’s desirability (Kian Lawley), but Sam keeps looking fondly at Lindsay’s face and her eyes. The regard Sam gave Lindsay from the start doesn’t stop, but Lindsay still catches her cheeks, demanding a gaze that was already given; when she walks out with a kiss and Sam turns to the mirror, the stamp of her lips looks just like a bruise. There is iron in Sam’s lines when she bids her friends their goodbyes, as if her words could become statues, as if her laughter were a garden. Speech couldn’t save Juliet, but Sam’s speeches are deeds now. She locks eyes again with Lindsay with more force than before: Sam’s look has the blankness and fullness of a martyr. Her shining face, which could make words seem like shadows, is itself being eclipsed. In the film’s final shot, it steps out of focus.