'Before I Fall': 'Groundhog Day' gets teen makeover

Frankie TAGGART
(L-R) Ry Russo-Young, Zoey Deutch, Lauren Oliver and Jennifer Beals attend the "Before I Fall" New York Special Screening

In the quarter century since the release of the cult classic film "Groundhog Day," filmmakers of all genres have used the "time loop" as a narrative device.

The concept is simple: characters experience the same day again and again, often having to figure out some universal truth to reform their characters and break the cycle.

Now indie director Ry Russo-Young has revisited the premise in "Before I Fall," which hits theatres on Friday, with the original movie's thirtysomething protagonists replaced with a cast of sassy millennials to appeal to the lucrative young adult market.

In "Groundhog Day," it is the selfish, arrogant weatherman Phil Connors, played by an acclaimed Bill Murray, who is forced to relive the same events until he decides to be a better man.

Harold Ramis's comedy has spawned more than 30 copycats to varying degrees of success -- from Disney's "Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas" in 1999 to the 2015 sci-fi flop "Project Almanac."

Although "Groundhog Day" was only moderately successful on its release, it came to be considered one of the greatest-ever comedies over time, listed as a "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" milestone in the US National Film Registry.

Russo-Young prepared for her updated version by watching time-loop movies such as "Primer" and "Edge of Tomorrow."

"For me, part of the research process is really covering a lot of ground and really understanding the different intersecting genres," she said.

- Brooding -

Shot over just 24 days, "Before I Fall" follows Samantha Kingston, a student in the "in crowd" who is about to lose her virginity to another of the popular kids.

Played by 22-year-old rising star Zoey Deutch, Sam finds herself trapped in a time loop, destined to repeat the day of her death in an auto accident over and over.

Maria Magenti's screenplay moves the action from the New England of Lauren Oliver's young adult novel of the same name to the brooding majesty of the rainy Pacific Northwest.

"The landscape offered a lot for Sam's psychology," the 35-year-old Russo-Young said.

"There's sort of a moodiness, and a sense of mortality, drama and angst to those visuals that felt like a character who is between life and death, who's trying to figure it out."

Sam's journey takes her through the various stages of confusion, grief, terror and acceptance as she tries to figure out what the cosmos has in mind for her.

"The challenge with any repeat-day construct is that you have to make it feel fresh every day and not like you're watching the same scene," Russo-Young said.

"And the good news is it's not the same scene because Sam is in a completely different psychological and emotional place."

The cast teams Deutch ("Vampire Academy," "Dirty Grandpa") and the up-and-coming 23-year-old Halston Sage ("Paper Towns," "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse") with veterans like Jennifer Beals 34 years after she made her name in "Flashdance."

- Good life -

Like all time-loop movies, Russo-Young's fourth feature -- her third in a row to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival -- plays out as a parable about redemption and what it means to live a good life.

It also offers lessons on sexual pressure, the stresses of social media and the fragility of teenage friendships.

"When I watched it for the first time, it culminated in this weird feeling of a celebration of life, which I felt was so powerful and moving," Deutch said.

"I recognized in people that were watching that they wanted to do good... Literally, I felt a sense of warmth and wanting to do good."

Deutch, who was bullied at middle school, says she immediately connected with a character whose flaws didn't define her.

"She's a follower in the beginning and becomes her own leader in her life," she said.

"Before I Fall" was a hit with the Sundance crowd and has been earning generally favorable reviews.

"These are two talented women who deserve to be elevated with the next projects they're offered," Brian Formo of the online movie magazine "Collider" wrote of Deutch and Russo-Young.

"'Before I Fall' could've been boilerplate. It often boils over with perfectly observed truths."