See You Yesterday (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little time travel adventure in Brooklyn

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“See You Yesterday”, which was released on Netflix last Friday, is a little smart movie which puts its own distinctive touches on one of the most time-honored science fiction subjects. While it takes a familiar route packed with predictable narrative turns expected from its story subject, the movie brings some fresh air to its genre territory via its contemporary social background and issues, and the overall result is more engaging than expected with considerable emotional resonance.

Right from the beginning, the movie instantly establishes its story premise as its two young main characters, C.J. Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and her best friend Sebastian Thomas (Danté Crichlow), ready themselves for the latest trial on their secret high school science project. Based on what they have studied and learned at their science high school in Bronx, they have tried to invent a machine for ‘temporal relocation’, and it looks like they are living in an alternative modern world where even high school kids can easily access to the technology and knowledge associated with quantum mechanics. I was amused when I saw C.J. reading that famous book by Stephen Hawking which I still have not touched yet although I bought it more than 20 years ago, and I was certainly tickled by a brief conversation between C.J. and her supportive teacher, who is incidentally played by a recognizable performer who has been known mainly for a certain famous time travel movie.

After failing again in their latest trial, C.J. and Sebastian feel quite disappointed, but they are not daunted at all while keeping trying to solve those technical problems on their way to success. You may not wholly understand every technical detail of their science project, but you can sense at least that they are really smart kids driven by curiosity and ambition, and Eden Duncan-Smith and Danté Crichlow did a fine job of conveying to us their characters’ unadulterated pluck and intelligence.

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It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that C.J. and Sebastian eventually succeed after making some additional improvement on their time machine, and you will not be surprised when they come to see how their time travel can inadvertently alter the timeline. Although their time travel is technically limited within the span of a few days, even a small action of theirs can considerably change the timeline, as shown from when their seemingly harmless prank on C.J.’s ex-boyfriend unexpectedly leads to an irreversible outcome.

And then there comes a sudden tragedy into C.J. and Sebastian’s life. Like many other people around them, they are constantly aware of many dangers in their black neighborhood located in Brooklyn, but they are quite devastated nonetheless when C.J.’s older brother Calvin (Brian “Stro” Bradley) happens to be shot by two police detectives who mistake him for one of two robbers they are chasing after. As grieving over her older brother’s death, C.J. decides to use the time machine to prevent the incident, and Sebastian reluctantly participates in her plan although he is concerned about what may go wrong during their latest time travel.

Of course, things do not go that smoothly for them, and we are accordingly served with those familiar complications of time travel, but the screenplay by director Stefon Bristol and his co-writer Fredrica Bailey, which was expanded from Bristol’s 2017 short film of the same name, keeps things rolling along its increasingly complicated plot. Although it loses some of its narrative momentum during its last act, it does not get us confused at least, and we come to care more about what is being at stake for our two young characters.

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In addition, the movie, which is the first feature film by Bristol and is produced by his mentor Spike Lee, distinguishes itself via its forthright approach to the social/political elements in its story. As shown several key scenes including the one involved with two aggressive local police officers, the movie is not afraid at all of showing its political position on race and police brutality, and you will not be surprised when a certain famous slogan is chanted at one point in the film.

The movie is also supported well by a number of good performers who imbue their respective roles with considerable life and personality. As the center of the movie, Duncan-Smith ably carries the film with her spirited performance, and I enjoyed how she and Crichlow effortlessly interact with each other on the screen. In case of the other main cast members in the film, Brian “Stro” Bradley, who previously appeared in “A Walk Among the Tombstones” (2014), is solid in his substantial supporting role, and the same thing can be said about Marsha Stephanie, Myra Lucretia Taylor, and Johnathan Nieves, who is hilarious as a classmate who has had a crush on C.J.

On the whole, “See You Yesterday” is a fairly entertaining science fiction drama mixed well with its sharp social/political messages, and you will probably come to root for its plucky heroine a lot as watching its finale. I must confess that I was initially a bit disappointed with how the movie ends its story, but, after reflecting more on its story and characters, I concluded that the finale fits well with the rest of the story, and I could sense more poignancy from its very last shot. While its achievement is modest on the whole, the movie is distinctive and compelling enough to hold your attention, and I think you should give it a chance during your free time.

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