Happy Death Day: a perfect, profound popcorn movie

by Ann Foster

This article contains spoilers.

The elevator pitch for Happy Death Day is so immediately engaging it’s a surprise this film hasn’t been made before: Groundhog Day meets Scream as a co-ed re-lives the same day only to be murdered again, until she’s able to unmask her killer. From the first trailer, the movie was upfront about what it was, and it’s a fantastic popcorn movie along the lines of a lengthy Black Mirror episode or a grown-up Goosebumps novel. Where things get most interesting is how it is simultaneously also one of the most profoundly moving, thought-provoking, and smart movies of the year… and also a goofy thrill ride with a series of legitimate scares. It doesn’t look down upon its genre, but somehow manages to lean into it while simultaneously offering up a bracing character study and a genuine good time.

Much of the film’s success rests on its lead, played by Jessica Rothe, an actor previously best known as one of Emma Stone’s roommates in La La Land. Rothe, as hard living co-ed Tree, hits every beat asked of her, as we watch her go from jaded mean girl to victim to detective and finally avenging angel. The convention in films of this slasher genre is for the kindhearted Final Girl to survive the murders of her more vapid and mean-spirited friends. Here, Tree starts out as the epitome of the girl usually first to go — blonde, casually cruel, and hard-partying, she is at first a recognizable stereotype. There are hints on that first day that there’s something more beneath the surface, but by the time she’s being fatally stabbed in a frothy white party dress we learn little more about her life. Where the film truly begins is the first time Tree wakes up after this sequence. She has been given a second chance to avoid the predestined fate of girls who look and act like she does in films like this, and we get to go along for the ride.
By the time Tree is brainstorming with token nice guy Carter (Israel Broussard) on possible suspects for her continued murder, he is astonished at the number of names she can come up with. She’s blasé, aware but not overly concerned with how many people are potentially murderously mad at her. The closest this film gets to the virtuous Final Girl is in her roommate, the makeup-free cupcake making Lori (Ruby Modine). Near the start of the film, she’s part of a lengthier montage of Tree’s hungover ennui annoying everyone around her. In another film, we’d see Tree’s inglorious morning-after hungover entree in their shared sorority room as a blip in Lori’s larger narrative. But with our focus tilted away from the seemingly sweet Lori to the larger than life Tree, we get to follow along as she wanders in late to a class being led by — of course — the older male teacher she’s sleeping with.

Tree is acting out in every expected way, and as she lives the day over and over — forced to analyze her life again and again — we, and she, come to see why. She wears a careful mask of disinterest and condescension that hides the blistering pain of having lost her mother very recently. A mother who shared her same birthday, this day, making her having to live it again and again hurt as much emotionally as it does physically, every murderous wound compounding the misery she’s already in. It’s a movie, we come to realize, about life and death and grief, and how running from pain often makes it worse. Here, of course, Tree is also running from a malevolent killer intent on murdering her. Watch how the film’s tone shifts when she decides to both take him down as well as make amends with her father, himself the personification of the grief she’s working so hard to avoid. But did I mention the movie is fun and funny as hell, too?

Rothe’s expert performance pivots, sometimes in a single frame, from pathos to comedy and back again. Like the narrators of Sia’s “Chandelier” and Tove Lo’s “High”, she may be a party girl running from her emotional issues, but she going to have a damn good time doing it. She’s sleeping with her professor, Greg (Charles Aitken), but has no illusions that it’s in any way more than a fun way to improve her grades. During one loop he assumes she’s going to confess her love, and her expression of amused confusion says all we need to know about her feelings for him. She spent the night with Carter after throwing herself at another friend’s crush, and spends much of her time in the first few loops pretending she’s never met him before — he lives in a dorm, is as effervescently genuine as this film itself, and is clearly not her usual type. She falls for him invisibly at first, growing from her appreciation for his help with her investigation, growing as she’s given the time to actually get to know him. It’s only when he sacrifices his life for her that she realizes the magnitude of feelings she’s developed for him.

Happy Death Day is canny in Carter’s portrayal, ensuring he’s sympathetic, kind, and funny but also brave and smart enough for us to root for him. The trick of this is that when we first meet him, we (and Tree) assume he’s spent the night with Tree. Considering how drunk she clearly was, this suggests he’s entirely a different sort of guy than he winds up being. It’s only when we learn in about the third or fourth loop that he brought her home to make sure she didn’t choke on her own vomit, and that they slept in separate beds, that he becomes a legitimate love interest to root for. And even more crucially, even as his puppy dog eyes clearly denote his crush on her, he never pressures her into a date or a relationship or even into acknowledging she knows him; the choice to do so is Tree’s alone.

Her waning relationship with Greg lines up with her emerging feelings for Carter, a type of sympathetic fallacy for how much more clearheaded she is becoming in her search to find her killer. Because, need I remind you, this movie is also delightfully fun. The number of times she lives through the day are tricky to count as several are tossed off in a fun montage culminating in her nude walk through the school quad, to Demi Lovato’s “Confident.” Her deaths develop the slapstick quality of Tom Cruise’s in Edge of Tomorrow because we know she’ll be right back, so each one doesn’t matter, does it? Until suddenly, it’s the most important thing of all.

Because unlike the endless supply of lives provided to Cruise’s character or Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors (Bill Murray), it turns out Tree has been sustaining actual injuries from each undone murder. The hell of these repetitions has been taking an equal physical toll to its emotional one, and her body’s limits mean she may have limited further opportunities to try again. So she moves from exuberant nihilism to a sudden need to treasure each day as it’s her last, while also knowing she will be killed at the end of it. It’s at this point she intuitively takes the Phil Conners approach as she chooses to go through a day making amends — signing the petition of an anxious do-gooder in the quad, accepting Lori’s cupcake despite its caloric amount… and, finally, meeting her father for a birthday lunch.

Groundhog Day is a funny movie about a man repeating the same day and it’s one of the most profound films ever made about the human condition. It’s about watching Stephen Tobolowsky step into a puddle over and over and it’s about watching Phil learn about the amazing life we miss out on when you allow cynicism to colour your worldview. Happy Death Day is a funny and scary movie about a woman in a similar situation and it’s also about how we keep making the same mistakes until we don’t, and the sneaky way that grief always catches up no matter how good a job you do of running and hiding. The film’s emotional climax is when Tree meets with her father. After all, it’s the recurring ringtone marking his birthday call to her that opens nearly every repeat of this day. Once she meets with him to be honest about her feelings, she visually changes. She thanks him for their honest, tearful conversation and we see in her the third act changes also experienced by Phil in his. All that’s left is the plot resolution, because although she’s come to terms with who she is, we still don’t know who’s behind that uber-creepy bay mask. Sidenote: it’s a fantastic mask and the idea that a campus sports team is the Bayfield Babies is maybe the funniest and scariest thing about the film.

Tree has surprised and subverted the expectations for her character at every turn. A red herring to find an escaped killer seems to have solved the crime, but we don’t know why he would have been targeting her. And of course, he wasn’t. She got the action climax in the previous day, but this extra day — the one after which it seemed like the film was closing — is low key and clever, because of course the killer has been Lori all along, the cupcake poisoned and her first attempt to murder her roommate. When Tree begs to know the why behind this whodunnit, only to learn that Lori was jealous of her relationship with Greg, we scream along with our heroine, “This was all because of a guy?” Tree is more offended at this motive than at Lori’s guilt: even in her new enlightened mindset, she’s aware that no man is worth this — particularly Greg, a man all too eager to cheat on his wife. Lori took out her jealousy on the target society had conditioned her to hate, the other woman, rather than on the man who’s been playing them both. Lori was the architect of Tree’s hell; the time loop was her salvation and way out of it. And for a nothing guy like Greg to have triggered everything, well, no wonder Lori winds up falling out of a window.

This film has been the story of Tree learning how to sit with herself, to stop running and hiding, to allow herself to be happy, and devastated, and all the messy things that make us who we are. Who she was at the start of the film was a character she put on to get through her daily life; when she stuck with that armour for too long it’s what she became. This movie isn’t a love story, but it contains one, and it’s not until she’s lived through the day for real that Tree and Carter finally share their first kiss. This means it’s a perfect moment she’ll only get to experience once, not to be mistaken for happily ever after. She didn’t begin the film wanting a boyfriend so to see her get one isn’t a happy ending; rather, it’s the most expedient way for us to see that something invisible has fundamentally changed in her. In facing her father, she acknowledged her grief, and in pushing Lori out the window, she’s reclaimed her body. Chances are she won’t again get the chance to fix her past mistakes, and she’s ready to face a world of unknown with the newly mastered skill of living in the moment.

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