Dakota Fanning has things to do and not much time, in this film version of Jenny Downham’s novel Before I Die.
Sixteen-year-old Tessa Scott (Dakota Fanning) has plans, plenty of things she wants to do. She’s living with her divorced father (Paddy Considine) and nine-year-old brother Cal (Edgar Canham) and spends a lot of time with her best friend Zoey (Kaya Scodelario). Lots of plans…and not much time. Having lived with leukaemia since she was thirteen, Tessa has only months to live.
Jenny Downham was not the first to change careers from acting to writing, and will surely not be the last. Before I Die was the second novel she wrote, and became her first published in 2007. Told in first person present tense, it won the 2008 Branford Boase Award (for a first novel for children or young adults) and was nominated for the Guardian Fiction Prize. Downham acts as associate producer for this film version, but the screenplay is the work of director Ol Parker. Note the change of title: presumably the word Die was not considered commercial. (Anyone remember Dying Young, the Julia Roberts vehicle that flopped badly during the peak of her stardom? Well, that was a terrible film admittedly.) It’s a book that may well leave its readers in a fragile state for days after reading it, but how well has it translated to film?
In the main, and with some reservations, very well. Apart from brief voiceovers at the beginning and end, the first-person narration has been jettisoned, which allows for an effective scene between Tessa’s father and Adam (Jeremy Irvine), the boy who lives nearby with whom Tessa falls in love, where Tessa is not present. Top of Tessa’s bucket list is to lose her virginity, which in the book is despatched quickly and to her underwhelmingly in the opening chapter when she and Zoey pick up two boys at a nightclub. In the film she doesn’t go through with it, which may be so as not to detract from the later romance with Adam. Some of Tessa’s things to do – including drugtaking and shoplifting – were toned down a little in postproduction, so that what was depicted in a novel aimed at thirteen-year-olds and upwards could be seen in a film with a 12A certificate. It’s also unfortunate that Zoey, who becomes pregnant as a result of her own nightclub encounter, becomes sidelined, and it doesn’t help that Kaya Scodelario is clearly a few years too old for the part.
Ol Parker directs effectively if self-effacingly, often placing his lead actress at the side of the otherwise mostly empty Scope frame as the film goes on, and locations in Brighton and Greater London are used well. He gives the cast plenty of space. Dakota Fanning doesn’t quite avoid the Hollywood cliché of dying prettily, but she uses a convincing English accent and gives a strong performance. Jeremy Irvine, fresh from War Horse and about to be seen as Pip in Great Expectations does a decent job in a frankly rather idealised role. Paddy Considine and Olivia Williams are superb as Tessa’s estranged parents, Considine in particular giving a masterclass in underplaying. You can sense his desperate attempts to stay positive and to keep his daughter alive, and his growing sense that she and her fate are increasingly out of his control. Mother and Father’s reconciliation for their daughter’s sake is nicely done, though I’m not convinced it will last. Some familiar small-screen faces like Rakie Ayola (currently also on UK cinema screens in Dredd), Sarah Hadland and Patrick Baladi turn up in small roles.
Now is Good doesn’t completely avoid sentimentality, but it’s far less egregious than Hollywood’s attempts at similar material (not to mention would-be-edgy indies like the not dissimilarly-themed My Life Without Me) might have been. It’s a well made and well acted and ultimately very moving film that does right by the novel it’s based on.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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