Zoey Deutch and Halston Sage in Before I Fall (2017)

Sundance 2017: ‘Before I Fall’ + ‘A Ghost Story’

'Before I Fall and A Ghost Story offer some haunting insight into the human condition.

Poets and romantics like to say that history is populated by ghosts. They dutifully mark the time, watching civilizations being born, dying, and being born again. Thanks to two films premiering at Sundance 2017, Before I Fall and A Ghost Story, we have a little ghostly insight into that history.

Strictly speaking, Before I Fall isn’t a ghost story. Director Ry Russo-Young’s (Nobody Walks (2012), You Won’t Miss Me (2009)) adaptation of Lauren Oliver’s wildly successful 2010 Young Adult novel is only fitfully entertaining and hilariously earnest. Regardless of how much you love or hate it, however, you will know two things to a certainty after watching it. The first is that no amount of money is worth re-living High School. The second is that modern pop music is in terrible shape.

Our first sign of trouble is an overbearing voiceover from Samantha Kingston (Zoey Deutch); a High School drama queen stuck inside of a sadistic time loop that kills her every day at 12:39 AM. “Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow,” Sam whines. Believe it or not, this is actually one of the least melodramatic lines from the film.

Sam is reliving the same Cupid Day over and over again at her upscale suburban High School. Her final day on the planet consists of ignoring her loving family, giggling with her insipid girlfriends, and binge drinking at a keg party. Her best friend Lindsay (Halston Sage) is your basic preppy nightmare, bullying the unpopular kids and flaunting her exquisite good looks like she designed her own DNA. The primary object of their scorn is Juliet (Elena Kampouris), a brooding artistic type they call ‘Mellow Yellow’ because she wet her sleeping bag in fifth grade. The link between Sam and Juliet’s fate becomes the primary mystery that drives the second half of the film.

It might seem that Before I Fall is simply Groundhog Day for the High School set, but that’s giving it far too much credit. This isn’t a film concerned with changing one’s life, but accepting its inherent value. While Sam and Phil Connors face the same conundrum of escaping their time loop, Sam isn’t really required to change or prove her worthiness.

To say this lowers the emotional stakes would be an understatement; it virtually eliminates them. The point of Young Adult dramas, of course, isn’t to build tension, but to be safe and familiar. This familiarity reassures teen audiences they aren’t alone in their feelings of powerlessness and persecution. It’s an admirable message, perhaps, but it makes for some damn boring cinema.

The primary problem with Before I Fall, however, is that these characters are truly reprehensible. Yes, teenagers can be cruel, but these girls are monsters. They humiliate Juliet at their party by giving her a beer shower and taunt her every Cupid Day with a card that reads, “Maybe next year… no, probably not.” The only respite from their cackling cruelty is the drone of monotonous pop music on the soundtrack. Truly, Before I Fall is like some type of sinister aversion experiment.

The film isn’t entirely without merit. Russo-Young sprinkles a few genuinely affecting moments into the overwrought nonsense. Sam shares a few quiet moments with Kent (Logan Miller), the sweet boy she saved from bullies back in the Third Grade. The first time that Sam watches the countdown to 12:39 AM is also a highlight. Zoey Deutch is a gifted actress, whose dark eyes and delicate features suggest a world-weariness that’s far too mature for this juvenile material.

Before I Fall is so honed to its target demographic that no one over the age of 14 could take it seriously. There will be a lot of 14 year-olds rolling their eyes, as well.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story (2017)

At the opposite end of the maturity spectrum is David Lowery’s new opus, A Ghost Story, which is one of the artistic highlights of Sundance thus far.

C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are lovers and struggling young musicians. They just bought their first house out in the country and it’s perfect. Sure, it has creaky floorboards and the piano is always falling out of tune, but it’s their creaky floorboards and funky piano, which makes them perfect.

The house is so perfect, in fact, that C refuses to abandon it, even after he dies in a car accident. Donned only in a white sheet with two impossibly black eyeholes, the forever-silent C shambles around the house as M struggles to move beyond her formerly perfect life.

Lowery (Pete’s Dragon (2016), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)) is a director who knows how to push the line between poignant and pretentious. Here, each scene plays a bit too long… and then plays a bit longer… until it finally reveals every excruciating nuance. Days pass into weeks, into years, into millennia. Seasons pass in a windowpane as spring rain yields to winter snow and finally, to lazy summer sunshine. Mood, atmosphere, and time hover above everything like C’s watchful ghost.

There are innumerable moments of quiet power in A Ghost Story. This is definitely not a film to watch on an empty stomach because the silence will betray you. We watch as a decimated M sits on the kitchen floor and devours an entire pie. The minutes silently accumulate; the only sound coming from the fork scraping the pie plate. It seems gratuitous, perhaps even pointless, until you understand the void she’s trying to fill. It’s the same void that prevents her from washing the bed sheets or emptying the trash can. How can she risk erasing the last traces of C’s essence?

Eventually M moves out, leaving C behind to stew in his loneliness. Occasionally he lashes out at the house’s new tenants, tossing a plate across the room or striking a discordant note on the piano that M couldn’t bear to take with her. He strolls through vast fields of lush green or stares across endless cityscapes choked with neon and smog. Sometimes he meets one of his own kind and they exchange lamentations.

“Who are you waiting for?”

“I don’t remember.”

Lowery smothers this imagery with a thick layer of ambient sound, like a throbbing train that never reaches the station. It all combines for a visceral statement on the indifference of time. Dreams, inspiration, and communication have no relevance here. In fact, the only meaningful dialogue is an impassioned soliloquy delivered by a drunken party philosopher on the futility of ambition itself.

A Ghost Story isn’t simply an artistic exercise to be enjoyed by daring cinephiles. It’s a beautiful and, quite literally, haunting portrait of our frail humanity. It might seem depressing were it not such a strident affirmation of our existence in this universe, no matter how fleeting. By contrast, David Lowery has crafted a powerful film that will only improve with time.

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