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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Siraj Syed reviews Before I Fall: Death gives her a second chance, and a third, and a ...

Siraj Syed reviews Before I Fall: Death gives her a second chance, and a third, and a ...

It is amazing how an old ‘doha’ (lessons and ethics of life, in simple poetic couplet form) from Indian folk literature has taken the shape of an American movie in 2017. Moral: We are aware of only one life, and to make the most of it, we must perform all our good deeds before it is too late. The doha, by secular Saint KabeerDaas goes, “Kaal karey so aaj kar, Aaj karey so ab’, which, loosely translated, reads, ‘What you would keep for tomorrow, do now, And what you had kept for today, do it now’. Death is the only reality, and it is the most unpredictable event of life. So, if you want to die in peace, make peace with your friends and family, and keep the peace, Before I (we) Fall.

Of course, the journey of the adage is co-incidental, like the plot of the film, which is based on a 2010 Young Adults novel of the same name, by Lauren Oliver. The novel begins when the protagonist, 17-year-old Samantha ‘Sam’ Kingston, is killed in a car accident. She vividly describes her horrifying and painful death, and what flashes through her mind in those final seconds. However, she wakes up the following morning in bed, heart pounding and bathed in sweat, with the memory of her demise still fresh in her mind. Gradually, she realises that for some reason, she is fated to relive the last day of her life, Friday, February 12, also known as Cupid Day/Rose Day, and the time of around 0038 hours, over and over, until she gets things ‘right’.

Throughout the week, Samantha, who seemingly had it all--popularity, a desired boy-friend, Rob Cokran, and surface-level happiness--must examine what's really important, in her ‘Mean Girls’ life. This life and life-style is one in which she and her snobby, wealthy school friends--Lindsay (the ring-leader), Ally and Elody--made life miserable for the underprivileged and social misfits, a life in which all that seems to matter is social status, clothes, rebellion against parental authority, contempt for younger siblings, boys, drinking and sex.

Sam experiences all five stages of grief in those dying moments. Denial is seen as she tries to evade her fate; she gets angry and rebels, lashing out at her friends (particularly Lindsay) and hanging out with students she would never dare be seen speaking with; she bargains with God, or fate, believing that if she can make things right, she can save her own life; depression, in which she feels that nothing even matters and wherein she begins acting uncharacteristically recklessly; and finally, acceptance.

A friend, who had read the book, said that the film is faithful to it to the extent of 70%, which is sensible, since it already has a major cinematic tool of flash-back and flash forward built-in, with multiple options, quite like a Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa’s all-time Japanese classic), with all points of view coming from the woman. Life doesn’t give you a second chance. What if death gave you four, or five, before you fall? What if the Butterfly Effect were real and Groundhog Day (the 1993 film about death and options around it) was a teenage ‘day of reckoning’ drama?

The title of the book and the film just has to be inspired by a Robert Frost poem, Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, which ends thus,

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,  

But I have promises to keep,  

And miles to go before I sleep,  

And miles to go before I sleep.

(Sleep equals fall, equals death).

And the film just has to be written and directed by either sensitive women, or persons sensitive to female sensibilities. Right on. A woman novelist, a woman’s screenplay adaptation and a female director. Maria Maggenti (The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, The Love Letter, Puccini for Beginners, Monte Carlo) the screen-writer, is an activist for gay and lesbian rights, and, also a director, just as director Ry Russo-Young, is a writer.

What work for the film are its heart, characterisation and motivation. Sadly, these very things get the better of the plot, on several occasions. Heart often translates as melodrama, characterisation becomes stereo-typical and motivation makes light of the unimaginably complex problems of principled life v/s devil-may-care and how incredibly difficult it is to make peace with yourself and the world, when there is no dearth of sadists and materialists to hound you. And punctuating the narrative with ‘tropey’ lines like “Oh...My...God!” is not the way forward.

Suggesting that you should not pick on a weak fellow student, or rag a meek class-mate, or discriminate against lesbian-orientation, lest you die with these burdens, are fine on paper, but strike hollow, like a million motivational books doing the book-store rounds, as, in 2017, the world hurtles towards a 100% ‘I Me My’ existence. Also, it is dangerous to club so many evils as a grouped virus-- social status, clothes, boys, smoking, drinking, ragging, the by now classic dysfunctional American family, and pre-marital sex. Too much of preaching, too much of layered lecturing and too much of ‘be compassionate’ing.

Russo-Young (You Won't Miss Me, Nobody Walks; Sundance projects), who has been on the indie circuit for over a decade, is delighted to get a chance to make a movie in the mould of Postcards from the Edge, her all-time favourite. She told a publication about her views on taking a stand, “Standing by and watching someone be beaten is just as bad as beating them.” On comparisons with Groundhog Day, she  avers, “That was a comedy. This is serious, existential, which makes it subjective.” Points well-taken. Before I Fall, nevertheless, draws endlessly on home-truths and inspired, lofty, philosophical lines that do not add-up to a holistic move experience.

Performances are routinely good and in character, led by the ‘gang of four’, with many fresh, raw faces dotting the frames:

Zoey Deutch as Samantha Kingston

Halston Sage as Lindsay Edgecombe

Cynthy Wu as Ally Harris

Medalion Rahimi as Elody

Erica Tremblay as Izzy Kingston (kid sister), (good show)

Logan Miller as Kent McFuller (the good boy, Sam’s silent lover)

Kian Lawley as Rob Cokran (the stud)

Jennifer Beals as Samantha's mother (understated)

Elena Kampouris as Juliet Sykes (difficult role, well-essayed)

Nicholas Lea as Dan Kingston (very understated)

Rating: ** (Add ½>* if you are swayed by motivation locomotion resolution)




About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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