Thursday, May 09, 2019

Tribeca ’19: See You Yesterday

The space-time continuum is so un-woke. After inventing time travel for her high school science project, Claudette “CJ” Walker keeps popping back in time, in order to save her older brother from a problematic police shooting. Unfortunately, each trip seems to make things worse. You might think a teen whiz kid would have read enough science fiction to know bad things happen when you try to alter the past. Yet, she persists anyway in Stefon Bristol’s Netflix-produced See You Yesterday, which premiered during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Initially, Walker and her platonic bestie Sebastian Thomas were only thinking about scholarships. Unfortunately, she soon realizes it has very practical and personal applications when her big brother Calvin is fatally shot. Obviously, this is brand new technology, so there are limits on how far back and how often they can jump. They will devise some work arounds, but the unforgiving nature of the space-time continuum remains a cold, hard fact.

The police shooting is about as potentially divisive catalyst as you can imagine, but Bristol depicts it in less abrasive and polarizing terms than viewers will probably expect. Nevertheless, the police in Yesterday are still basically clichés, with no real individuality. Frankly, the film would have been more compelling if the cops in question were also shown to be more-or-less decent, but were driven by misunderstandings and circumstance to commit a fatal mistake, making it a tragedy all the way around.

Nonetheless, Yesterday has a surprise cameo that will win over any fan of time travel science fiction, even if they are card-carrying members of Patrolmen’s Benevolent. More importantly, the two young stars, Eden Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow are an extraordinarily winning and charismatic on-screen duo. Honestly, Crichlow’s agents should be pitching him to be the live action Miles Morales (from Spider-Verse), because he can totally combine teen angst and science nerd cred. The same is true for Jonathan Nieves, who steals a few scenes as their classmate with a talent for circuitry, who makes no secret of his crush on Walker.

There is indeed a lot of logic-defying scientific double-talk in Yesterday, but Duncan-Smith and Crichlow pull it off like champs. Bristol also keeps raising the stakes and widening the scope of the temporal disruptions in ways that have a potent sense of tragic inevitability. Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes is still the gold standard of time-looping head trips, but Yesterday can claim some of the sharpest written time travel business in several years.

It is refreshing to see a film in which teens are smart rather than stupid. It is also nice to see teens who really look like teens. In terms of the depiction of cops in Yesterday, it might be productive to view it in conjunction with the DC Noir pilot, based on the short fiction of George Pelecanos, which also screened at Tribeca. Ever-reliable character actor Jay O. Sanders portrays a veteran patrol officer, who personally knows the residents on his beat and probably understands the dynamics of the urban neighborhood better than the young man who raises the ire of a local drug dealer. Is it fair to expect perfection from peace officers every second of every night, year after year, regardless of the stress and dangers they encounter?

So, watch both films and get two perspectives. See You Yesterday will be easier to find in the short term. It releases May 17th on Netflix, following its screenings at this year’s Tribeca.