Another year, another “Groundhog Day” rip-off. Nearly three decades after Bill Murray got stuck in a time loop until he became a better man, the concept has spawned so many iterations that it basically exists as its own genre, mixed and mashed with other tropes to reanimate a familiar routine. Often, the deja vu of watching these movies mimics the predicaments of their characters, even when they’re halfway decent. The latest to take the rom-com approach, “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” offers an agreeable kind of breezy, soul-searching variation, but can’t break free of the overwhelming meta impression that we’ve seen this all before.
The movie plays like a hybrid of several recent variations: Like 2017’s drama “Before I Fall,” it’s a slick YA adaptation (sci-fi writer Lev Grossman wrote the screenplay off his short), it has some tonal similarities to the horror-comedy “Happy Death Day,” released that same year. Both movies used the time-loop conceit to explore the existential dread of teen life. “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” folds that same approach into a quirky two-hander about Mark (Kyle Allen) and Margaret (Kathryn Newton), two ambling 17-year-olds who discover they’re fated to repeat the same day in their boring little town.
Above all, the setup places the movie in the shadow of 2020’s “Palm Springs,” itself a quirky two-hander about two people inadvertently trapped together on the same infinite day. But while “Palm Springs” took a vulgar detour into the nature of monogamy, “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” lingers in a sunny coming-of-age dance that suffers from a “Groundhog Day” syndrome of its own. Grossman and director Ian Samuels (“Sierra Burgess Is a Loser”) take an earnest approach to the ambivalent cycle that Mark has been enduring long before the movie starts.
The opening passage kicks things off with time-loop montage: Mark wakes up to another drab variation on the same morning, shrugs off his nagging dad (Josh Hamilton, in a watered-down variation of his “Eighth Grade” turn) and smarmy younger sister (Cleo Fraser), then speeds through the day anticipating the movements of people around the neighborhood. The camera alongside with him as he slides through the neighborhood with the dexterity of a dancer in “La La Land” (not for nothing is the spindly actor next set to appear in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”). Like Murray’s Phil Connors before him, Mark has become master of his own domain, finishing sentences, offering directions, and trying to use his god-like awareness of the world around him to score with chicks. It’s not the most inspired plot, but it allows him to keep the pressure of his future at bay, mainly the question of whether or not he’ll go to art school. What difference does it make when there’s no tomorrow?
Mark has already made his first reference to “Groundhog Day” in a playful back-and-forth with video-game pal Henry (Jermaine Harris) when the routine takes a sudden turn: One day, during his usual visit to the pool, he spots the reclusive Margaret and realizes she’s stuck in the same loop as him. Though content to keep to herself, Margaret eventually warms up to Mark’s advances, if for no other reason that there’s little else to do. With time, the pair find common ground in the ennui that defines their existence. The solution, the titular map, finds them roaming about town capturing all the “perfect things” they find around them as their chemistry blooms on schedule. Shot with slick cinematography — including some genuine eye-popping long takes — and set to cozy series of pop music cues, the movie’s gooey main gimmick brings sufficient cinematic bravado to a monotonous concept, creating a curious dissonance between filmmaking ambition and rather pedestrian themes.
Still, it’s not an empty exercise. The two actors inject plenty of feeling into this aimless material, with Newton following last year’s zany B-movie “Freaky” to prove she can bring a welcome dose of irony to the teen crisis story. Nevertheless, “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” can’t help but feel tired as it circles around this would-be couple contending with their individual crises. Newcomers to the genre might find something tantalizing in the endless chatter about “infinite do-overs” and the two teens’ nuggets of wisdom (“Most of life is junk, it’s filler”) they’ve gleaned from an endless variations of the same day, but the will-they-or-won’t-they tension of underlying romantic entanglement never develops a sharp enough hook. If a time-shifting riff on the “Before” trilogy sounds intriguing on paper, well, “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” simply doesn’t go deep enough to get there.
In part, that’s by design, as a late-act revelation questions whether establishing the movie from Mark’s perspective was a flaw from the start. As Grossman’s script shifts focus to Margaret, it suggests a sharper character study built around more profound emotional setbacks. Unfortunately, it also trades one cliché in favor of another one — namely, the use of a magical device to help a young person cope with profound loss. In the process of merging formulas, “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” recycles the same material it seems inclined to rejuvenate, one step at a time. There may be endless ways to make “Groundhog Day” feel fresh, but this one’s little more than another harmless retread.
“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” starts streaming on Amazon Prime on Friday, February 12.