see you yesterday review

Ever since Back to the Future hit theaters in 1985, time travel has become, for lack of a better phrase, old news. Time travel and all of its quirks and reality-altering consequences have become a part of the cultural language, with even the casual moviegoer knowing what happens if you step on a butterfly in the past. But See You Yesterday, which comes from Spike Lee protégé Stefon Bristol, adds a fresh and timely twist to the well-worn time travel movie.

See You Yesterday follows CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith), a science prodigy who develops a time travel device with her best friend Sebastian (Danté Crichlow) for their school science fair. But their elation at inventing time travel is cut short when CJ’s older brother Calvin (a wonderfully plaintive Brian Vaughn Bradley, Jr.) is wrongfully killed by the police. Griefstricken, CJ convinces Sebastian to use to help her change the past with their new device, only to discover that tragedy is lurking around every corner.

At its most basic elevator pitch, See You Yesterday is Back to the Future meets Black Lives Matter. But to reduce the film just to that logline would do it a disservice. Bristol shows a remarkable ability to balance the film’s serious themes with the lighthearted nature of the time travel romp, which the film adheres to pretty closely. CJ and Sebastian’s time travel device is steampunk Spielberg-meets-Wes Anderson — it amounts essentially to a giant backpack with quirky round goggles and unwieldy wristwatch. See You Yesterday‘s version of New York is one of warm, saturated colors, rich and vibrant neighborhoods, and friendly bodega owners. CJ and Sebastian’s high school is so typical of a movie version of school that it almost comes of no shock when Michael J. Fox waltzes in for a cameo and a winking, “Great Scott!” This heightened and happy version of New York is central to See You Yesterday‘s buoyant tone, which rarely clashes with the dark, modern-day elements that slowly creep in.

Up until two-thirds of the way through the film, the greatest danger CJ faces is her hostile ex-boyfriend, whose threats against her and Sebastian fall flat when her brother Calvin steps in to intercede. But there is an underlying tension that pervades the film that the bullish CJ is frustratingly insensitive to. Hot-headed and reckless, CJ is a fascinatingly unlikable protagonist. As played by a fierce Duncan-Smith, CJ is prone to lashing out equally against her loved ones and her enemies — once to dangerous effect, when she protests against her brother’s intervention with her ex on her behalf. Their yelling match attracts the attention of a nearby cop, and CJ ends up yelling at the cop while her brother crumples in compliance — a scene that becomes unbearably tense and a stark reminder that See You Yesterday is more than just a breezy time-travel adventure.

The film builds to a boiling point with the shooting of Calvin, who is killed when he is mistaken for a bodega robber by cops in pursuit. Bristol crafts a complex, airtight scenario leading up to the shooting, which he leaves offscreen, allowing the viewer to fill in the gaps. See You Yesterday is a film aware of the territory it’s treading in. Its decision to leave the most devastating moments of violence offscreen isn’t it shying away from issues of police brutality but approaching the issue from the perspective that the audience knows this is a part of life now. It’s almost more harrowing in that regard, suggesting that police shootings are as much an inevitability as consequences are in time travel. In bringing this to the forefront, Bristol employs the 12 Monkeys concept of time travel more so than the Back to the Future idea — that nothing, no death is inevitable.

It’s an alarmingly depressing notion that Bristol manages to convey without making See You Yesterday feel too bleak. CJ and Sebastian are a compelling duo, whose warm friendship drives the film even as CJ’s impulsive actions end up inadvertently hurting Sebastian. And several supporting characters pop up to provide much-needed moments of levity, even if comic relief characters like Eduardo (Johnathan Nieves), a classmate of CJ and Sebastian’s who nurses a crush on CJ, veer on the cartoonish side.

See You Yesterday is a powerful debut from Bristol, who proves a promising filmmaker well-deserving of mentor Spike Lee’s support. See You Yesterday is a powerful and poignant film centered on a wonderfully flawed protagonist whose hard-earned lessons in this film leave a profound impact with the viewer long after the credits roll.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

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