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See You Yesterday is Back to the Future with sharp social commentary

See You Yesterday is Back to the Future with sharp social commentary


Time travel plus the Black Lives Matter movement

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See You Yesterday
via Tribeca Film Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Time machines aren’t real, but most people still basically understand their rules: respect the butterfly effect, don’t meet your past self, don’t take the Infinity Stones to another universe, and if you want to prevent a disaster, prepare for unforeseen consequences.

In the upcoming Netflix release See You Yesterday — directed by Stefon Bristol, co-written by Fredrica Bailey, and produced by Spike Lee — the protagonists actually do create a time machine. And they’re all too aware of its dangers. But See You Yesterday walks a delicate line between optimism and tragedy. It celebrates marginalized people acquiring the power to subvert a system that’s oppressed them, while acknowledging how powerful that system is, and how complicated changing it can be.

What’s the genre?

See You Yesterday, adapted from Bristol’s 2017 short film, deliberately echoes Back to the Future. It’s a witty movie about high school students who discover time travel is possible, then face startling logistical and philosophical conundrums when they try to change the past. In case the parallels weren’t obvious from the start, Michael J. Fox even makes a quick cameo appearance as a teacher. But where Back to the Future was focused on quirky smaller-scale drama, See You Yesterday is grounded in contemporary social issues.

What’s it about?

C.J. Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian Thomas (Dante Crichlow) are best friends living in New York’s East Flatbush neighborhood — and brilliant teenage scientists who invented a pair of working “temporal relocation” backpacks for a science expo. The machines let C.J. and Sebastian travel through a wormhole into the recent past for a few minutes at a time, a feat that should earn them some much-needed money for college, in addition to breaking the known laws of the universe. Then, C.J.’s older brother Calvin (Brian Vaughn Bradley Jr.) is mistaken for an armed robber and gunned down by police. The backpacks suddenly seem good for more than scholarships.

C.J. and Sebastian hatch a plan to change Calvin’s fate. But as countless fictional time travelers might attest, that’s a risky, unpredictable goal. The two of them end up scrambling to undo their past work, and in spite of all their clever solutions, they’re eventually faced with some heart-wrenching choices.

What’s it really about?

As that plot summary suggests, it’s about the personal fallout of racist over-policing. Calvin’s fate echoes the deaths of many other young black men who are killed by police without provocation, particularly Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford Jr., fatally shot last year in an apparent case of mistaken identity. The officers here aren’t monstrous or outspokenly hateful, but they treat a far-from-threatening teenager as inherently hostile and dangerous, manageable only with lethal force.

See You Yesterday draws on years of tension between black New Yorkers and the New York Police Department, and it places Calvin’s death in the context of Black Lives Matter protests. But it spends more time exploring the devastation and powerlessness that C.J. and her family feel. Lots of time-travel stories question whether people can change history. In See You Yesterday, the idea becomes a broad metaphor for the rigged systems of social injustice. No matter how much C.J. and Sebastian try to do everything right, they seemingly just can’t win. (Incidentally, an episode of Jordan Peele’s new Twilight Zone explores a similar theme with a similar time-travel plot.)

As part of See You Yesterday’s teen-movie milieu, it also touches on the pressures of college admissions and being an upwardly mobile kid from a working-class home — including the idea that literally inventing time travel is the protagonists’ most viable path to higher education. The academic subplot is a light but welcome addition to the film, grounding big ideas in a relatable vision of high school.

Is it good?

See You Yesterday is a compelling blend of nuanced drama, teenage adventure-comedy, and thought experiment. Its protagonists make a great duo, alternating between sophisticated genre-savvy observations and adolescent vulnerability. The film doesn’t skimp on the technobabble, but Duncan-Smith and Crichlow aren’t restricted to playing super-nerds — their characters are ordinary kids embedded in a network of neighbors and family, even if everyone does think they’re a little odd. And C.J.’s relationship with her brother is touching without being saccharine, as they frustrate and support each other in equal measure.

While the filmmakers have clearly thought through the logistics of time travel, they aren’t trying to dazzle anyone with baroque, mind-bending paradoxes. Instead, the rules are structured to raise the dramatic stakes. C.J. and Sebastian can only travel a few days into the past, and their backpacks have a lengthy cool-down period, so there’s no chance for unlimited do-overs.

The barriers occasionally aren’t explained well, and they can feel a little artificial. One or two major crises, for instance, seem like they’d be fixed by just walking a few blocks before time-traveling. Overall, though, See You Yesterday keeps its tricky science fiction tropes firmly under control — without ever losing sight of the human relationships at its core.

What should it be rated?

PG-13 for slightly lower-than-normal American teenager levels of swearing, plus some violence that’s understated, but hits hard.

How can I actually see it?

See You Yesterday will be released on Netflix on May 17th.