When a time travel movie actively courts Back To The Future comparisons, then either the makers know they have something special or they’re horribly deluded. Fortunately, See You Yesterday is the former. With Spike Lee acting as a calming — or incendiary, depending on how you look at it — hand in a producer role, See You Yesterday is a whip-smart story that crackles along while taking time to hit some emotional (and political) beats.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Stefon Bristol
Written By: Fredrica Bailey and Stefon Bristol
Flatbush teenager CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) is an outstanding scientist and is working with her classmate and best friend Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) to create a working time machine. Their main thought is how this can set them up for an academic future. But when CJ’s brother Calvin (Astro) is shot and killed by the police in a case of mistaken identity, the need to travel to the past and make things right by saving Calvin. The complexities of time travel and the flaws in the American system make this goal easier said than done.
A Bold New Voice
With his feature debut, Stefon Bristol has offered an admirable calling card. It’s brash, bold, impassioned and inventive. In Eden Duncan-Smith he’s found an actor with real charisma, and she has plenty of help from the rest of the cast. Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow feel like real long-term friends. They spar off each other, sometimes laughing, sometimes fighting, but always feeling believable. Refreshingly, the writers don’t try and force any kind of romance into the mix. You can tell there’s love as friends, strong enough to propel their actions and push them to greater risks for each other as they come up against the difficulties of undoing a violent event without causing a new, different harm.
Bristol keeps the film visually interesting while never allowing the flourishes to distract from the meat of the story. And the script keeps the time travel paradoxes and machinations understandable without feeling dumbed down. (There are a couple of plot points that don’t quite line up perfectly, but almost all travel movies, with the possible exception of Primer, need a little hand waving in servicing a narrative.)
He’s assembled an impressive young cast with Critchlow and Johnathan Nieves (as friend and assistant Eduardo), with both feeling remarkably natural in their feature debuts.
Actor and rapper Astro (who also records under the name Stro) also offers a strong performance as Calvin. The dynamic between Calvin and CJ, like the one between CJ and Dante, feels authentic. You get the backstory of the older brother wanting to look after his sometimes hotheaded sister almost instantly, even though she’s a scientific genius who can run rings around him academically.
The most impressive aspect of See You Yesterday‘s execution might be the tonal balancing act. Yes, it’s a buoyant, lively story of smart kids from loving backgrounds who are on a time travel adventure. But they also run up against the real world brutality of a police system that is overstretched, armed, and all too quick to see black men only as a threat.
This could feel like tonal whiplash, but it’s played expertly. Life in the film isn’t relentlessly dark; the neighborhood in which these characters live is a colorful, lively place. It’s full of life and movement (the reggae-tinged soundtrack is first-rate), but it’s also a place where awful things can happen to innocent people. Sadly, that’s not something that is dramatic license, but the sobering reality of the United States.
See You Yesterday is a Movie With A Message
See You Yesterday has a lot to say about the place of African Americans with regard to gun violence and the police. For Back To The Future, to get killed required Libyan terrorists and plutonium. In 2019 New York, being young, black and in the wrong place at the wrong time is sometimes enough. The film never specifically sets out the cops as cartoonishly racist, but the police here are unthinkingly dismissive of minorities. Calvin and his friend Dennis (Wavyy Jonez) don’t look like the actual suspects the police are chasing, nor do they have similar clothing. Still, they are young black males, and in America, that’s sadly enough in many cases to result in the use of firearms.
It’s not stretching a point too far to mention that for a working-class kid like CJ, getting into MIT is going to take something like inventing actual time travel. See You Yesterday has fun moments with these smart, hardworking kids but it doesn’t let you forget that they have limited opportunities.
Netflix has developed something of a reputation for quantity over quality. Or, of being a home for movies that weren’t good enough for a cinema release. See You Yesterday is more proof that the streaming services can fill a gap for films that cinema won’t find a home for. This film would have been a tough sell for distributors; it isn’t (just) an exhilarating adventure movie. See You Yesterday has some serious points to make. It also has enough strong language and adult themes to take it out of easy kids movie territory. A traditional studio might have insisted on toning down these elements. It’s to the maker’s (and Netflix’s) credit that the film doesn’t compromise. Seeing where Bristol, Bailey and the rest of the talented cast go next should be very, very interesting.
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