Sunday, May 19, 2019

Like Many of the Best Time Travel Tales, See You Yesterday Merges Sci-Fi With Intimate Human Experiences

There are plenty of drawbacks to Netflix's method of releasing its movies with little in the way of prominent promotion but it also has its benefits, most notably in how it can lead to the fun experience of a whole bunch of people across the world discovering and enjoying a new Netflix original movie and watching them spread the word about it across social media. Watching that word-of-mouth work to turn a previously unknown film into something everybody's talking is utterly fascinating to watch. If there's any justice in the world, the cleverly concocted time travel tale See You Yesterday will be the next Netflix film to receive that kind of treatment from audiences.

See You Yesterday focuses on a pair of High School New York friends, C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), who are tinkering away on a school project involving time travel. It may sound like a work of fantasy but after plenty of trial-and-error, these two actually manage to achieve the impossible: they've captured the ability to time travel. Shortly after this breakthrough, C.J.'s older brother Calvin (Brian Bradley) is shot and killed by a cop in another example of race-based police brutality. It's an event that shakes C.J. to her core, but she soon realizes there's a way to save Calvin through the time travel technology she's just crafted.

Of course, pulling an Avengers: Endgame/X-Men: Days of Future Past to help save her brother doesn't go according to plan as constant new wrinkles get opened up every time she goes back in time to alter the past. In this respect, See You Yesterday reminded me of the best Twilight Zone episodes in how it explores an intimate human experience through a heightened science-fiction concept that ends up creating more problems for the main characters than it solves. Just as mind-reading or getting your fondest wishes to come true didn't benefit the various protagonists of individual Twilight Zone episodes, time travel, seemingly the savior of all of C.J.'s woes, only complicates rather than erases the overwhelming feelings of grief she experiences after the loss of her brother.

Not only does this take the time travel element of the plot into an interesting direction, but this messy approach to time travel serves a fitting accompaniment to the appropriately messy process of coping with the loss of a loved one. This is a universal process that, as realized here, serves as one of the best parts of Frederica Bailey and Stefon Bristol's script (the latter of these writers also directs the movie) on so many levels. C.J.'s fervent dedication to get her brother back is depicted as a relatable and poignantly executed extension of her grief, you can feel her ache come through the screen and Eden Duncan-Smith does great work depicting the various ways C.J.'s grief can manifest itself in her behavior. Whether she's just sitting on her bed sorrowful or she's expressing intense frustration at Sebastian, Duncan-Smith subtly makes the characters personal turmoil palpable.

Both Duncan-Smith and the script also excel in opening sequences dedicated to establishing C.J.'s world prior to the death of her brother. The friendship between C.J. and Sebastian is especially utterly delightful, the two's years of friendship totally gets felt in both their dialogue and the rapport between Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow. Plus, yay for non-romantic male/female friendships in major American movies, you can never have enough of that! Bailey and Bristol's writing is also good at conveying key pieces of background information about C.J.'s home life, namely the passing of her father and her trying to encourage Calvin to pursue higher education, through dialogue that feels organic rather than engage in distracting forms of clunky expository dialogue that would undercut the realistic character interactions.

These dialogue-driven interactions are further enhanced by delightful tiny details, like how C.J. and Sebastian are allowed to drop F-bombs and other pieces of notable profanity (no dumb MPAA regulations to worry about when you're a Netflix movie) that make them feel like actual teenagers. In it's in those details that one really gets to know and become invested in C.J. and the core individuals that populate her life, which really helps the aforementioned part of the screenplay dealing with the protagonist struggling with the death of a loved one. The only real misfire in the supporting cast is a more hackneyed comic relief character named Eduardo (Johnathan Nieves), who feels like he could have used an extra nuanced personality trait or two to fit into the more realistically complex world of See You Yesterday.

It's a world that Stefon Bristol, making his feature film directorial debut, brings to life in a splendid fashion. Bristol's direction shows a sharp eye for how to realize both grounded and high-concept parts of this production. For a sequence where C.J., Calvin and their friends are harassed by a cop, Bristol knows how to film the scene in an intimate manner that makes the stark danger of this interaction undeniable while his depiction of how C.J. and Sebastian messily come in and out of time travel manages to feel visually unique in the vast amount of cinematic depictions of time travel. With such unique touches accompanied by an emotionally resonant storyline about grappling with loss, See You Yesterday totally deserves to be the next Netflix original film that becomes a word-of-mouth driven phenomenon, especially since it contains what feels like an instant winner for Best Cameo Appearance of Summer 2019.

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