Sundance 2017: 'Before I Fall' + 'A Ghost Story'

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

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

Before I Fall

US Release: 2017-03-17
Director: Ry Russo-Young
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Jennifer Beals, Elena Kampouris
Studio: Open Road Films
Year: 2017
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release date: 2017-01-21

A Ghost Story

Director: David Lowery
Cast: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham
Studio: A24
Year: 2017
Release date: 2017-01-22

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less

'Foxtrot' Is a 'Catch-22' for Our Time

Giora Bejach in Fox Trot (2017 / IMDB)

Samuel Maoz's philosophical black comedy is a triptych of surrealism laced with insights about warfare and grief that are both timeless and timely.

There's no rule that filmmakers need to have served in the military to make movies about war. Some of the greatest war movies were by directors who never spent a minute in basic (Coppola, Malick). Still, a little knowledge of the terrain helps. A filmmaker who has spent time hugging a rifle on watch understands things the civilian never can, no matter how much research they might do. With a director like Samuel Maoz, who was a tank gunner in the Israeli army and has only made two movies in eight years, his experience is critical.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.