See You Yesterday, 2019.
Directed by Stefon Bristol.
Starring Eden Duncan-Smith, Danté Crichlow, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Johnathan Nieves, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Wavyy Jonez, Rayshawn Richardson, Ron Bobb-Semple and Brian “Stro” Bradley.
Best friends C.J. and Sebastian build a pair of time machines and use them in order to save the life of C.J.’s brother.
Hollywood has proven countless times how skilled filmmakers can fuse escapist genre entertainment with potent social commentary, and though this Spike Lee-produced time travel-cum-police brutality romp touts an attention-grabbing hook, the end product is disappointingly forgettable.
Two black teens from Brooklyn, C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Danté Crichlow), use their preternatural smarts to invent a time machine, shortly before C.J.’s brother Calvin (Brian “Stro” Bradley) is killed in a police shooting. As the pair travel back in time in order to save Calvin’s life, they’re forced to juggle the time machine’s life-saving potential with the usual ethical and causal issues raised by a temporal re-do.
It’s a rather sad fact that straight-up dramas about America’s epidemic of police brutality against unarmed black people tend to fall upon deaf ears with those who need to see them most – look no further than the box office performance of recently acclaimed films like Blindspotting and The Hate U Give.
And so the idea of wrapping this timely issue around a broader genre film is a smart and creative way to engage with the subject matter for a potentially wider audience – on a democratic(ish) platform like Netflix, no less. But it’s ultimately a crushing shame just how unenthusiastically this film is executed in terms of scripting and technicals.
Perhaps the most abundant issue right off the bat is the film’s oft-wavering tone; it begins as a whimsical coming-of-ager with cute time travel trimmings, but quickly evolves into a sobering drama about murder, with jarring F-bombs and sexual references. The distinct Disney Channel TV movie vibe of its earlier sections and its mediocre attempts at comic relief – primarily through Sebastian’s goofball friend Eduardo (Johnathan Nieves) – were desperately in need of a re-working to make the slalom into slice-of-life grittiness less offputting.
As for the overall narrative, it probably wouldn’t be that fair to criticise the film for its heavy-handedness re: police brutality, given that it’s an urgent issue which can benefit from a sledgehammer-subtle message. Yet the film’s treatment of time travel is relatively unsophisticated if not patronising; the usual hand-wringing about the consequences of leaping back in time has been done better in dozens of movies, and there are heaps of rote expository dialogue vomited up to explain the time travel logic.
The actual excursion itself engages with most of the typical time travel problems, like running into yourself in the past and causing unwanted alterations which necessitate another jump, yet none of it feels particularly fresh or interesting. And while sci-fi fans might be fleetingly perked-up by the presence of Back to the Future‘s Michael J. Fox as the kids’ science teacher, it arguably takes one step too far into cringe-worthy territory with a pandering utterance of, “Great Scott!”
Production values are also disappointing for a Netflix Original; the cinematography generally touts an over-lit, garishly bright sheen which smacks of a mediocre YouTube Red pilot, especially when viewed in 4K. Laughably chintzy visual effects during the time travel sequences are also unbecoming, if at least sparsely deployed. None of this would be a deal-breaker were the ideas and characters sufficiently compelling, though.
But to the film’s credit, the allure of C.J. desperately trying to save her brother is an inherently intriguing one, yet oddly not introduced until close to the movie’s half-way mark. And when the narrative sags or simply maintains a watchable baseline – which it does often – the central cast members do at least deserve praise for their rock solid performances, especially Bradley, who as C.J.’s ill-fated brother is by far the most naturalistic performer here.
Whether you’re on-board with Stefon Bristol’s directorial debut or not, there’s likely to be plenty of push-back against the film’s hugely unsatisfying, elliptical ending, which just might be hedging its bets for a sequel. Given that it won’t be reliant on box office and could play well with millennials at home, never say never.
If you’re interested in time travel movies or this film’s more grounded subject matter, See You Yesterday clocks in at just 86 minutes and is certainly an easy enough viewing. Given the potential, however, it feels like a majorly missed opportunity on a conceptual, narrative and technical level.
An extremely promising concept is lent a disappointingly indifferent treatment in this low-fi, low-effort time travel romp.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.