It is understandable if the premise raises an eyebrow. See You Yesterday starts off as a soft sci-fi YA movie about time travel with a very light touch. (There's a surprise cameo in the first five minutes that all but winks to the camera, "Hey, this is gonna be fun!") The special effects are cheap (but playful) and the acting starts off from that CW sweet spot of blurted-out slang-heavy verbiage. Then, about 35 minutes into this 86-minute film, there's a significant turn. Is this really an appropriate movie for serious topics like excessive policing, shooting bias, and institutional racism?
The answer is... sure, why not? It's a big swing but director Stefon Bristol's debut feature, co-written with Fredrica Bailey and produced by Spike Lee, firmly connects once the stakes get raised. These are very real issues in American society, and science fiction at its best has always been a springboard to examine important issues from a unique point of view. The movie doesn't feel preachy, it feels urgent.
C.J. (Eden Duncan-Smith) is one of the biggest brains at Bronx High School of Science. She and her best pal Sebastian (Danté Crichlow) commute in from the predominantly black neighborhood of East Flatbush. C.J. lives with her older brother Calvin (rapper Astro) and their mother. Dad died in the Army. Sebastian lives with his Caribbean immigrant grandparents. Without being a copycat, Bristol picks up some of his mentor Lee's better habits. There is a bold, warm use of color, street signs get their close-up and a spread of neighborhood players are introduced in operatic form.
C.J. and Sebastian have built time machines in Sebastian's grandparents' garage. They look like backpacks with tubes and a phablet attached. Just go with it. C.J. is a little glib about monkeying up cause-and-effect. When they test it out and go back in time one day, she hurls a slushie at her obnoxious ex-boyfriend. There are time stream repercussions, but nothing too major. Then: tragedy.
The local bodega is knocked over and her brother is mistaken for the robber. He's been harassed by the cops plenty, and, understandably, does not "snap to" when asked for ID. Though it happens off-camera, he is shot and killed.
As the family and community mourns, C.J. knows she has to go back in time to prevent the killing. Seems simple: run to the spot and warn her brother. But when she tries, there are unforeseen obstacles. So on a second trip back, she tries a different approach: prevent the burglary. This causes even more problems. The loose strings are everywhere and the gravity of the situation gets Bristol's point across brilliantly. In this environment there is absolutely no room for mistakes.
As things get more complex (and, admittedly, as with every multiple timeline movie, from 12 Monkeys to Primer to Looper to the all-mighty Back to the Future trilogy, you just have to roll with it) there is still room for humor. Jonathan Nieves co-stars as fellow whiz-kid Eduardo who has access to some humongous kind of power source. (Again, don't ask too many questions about the science.) Eduardo is a warm and hilarious doofus in love with C.J., and Nieves is hilarious. Expect to see more great things from him.
See You Yesterday can't have had a significant budget, and while the props and effects don't exactly dazzle, Bristol gets creative with the imagery when it counts. One sequence where things truly go upside-down for C.J. is a perfect example of how to let a camera tell the story. What's best is that the story ought to appeal to kids who want to watch teens in a fantasy setting. The weight of the drama comes from the very real social hurdles found in a minority community, and an engaged younger viewer who may not normally care about so-called "political" stories will still find themselves in knots. This is socially progressive filmmaking at its very best, where the "teachable moments" sprout naturally from the drama. Bristol and Lee make for a powerful team-up. Hopefully this won't be a one-time trip.
See You Yesterday premieres Friday, May 17 on Netflix.