See You Yesterday, newcomer Stefon Bristol’s debut Netflix film co-written by Fredrica Bailey and produced by mentor Spike Lee, falls within the conventions of the genre. (Don’t stay too long, don’t run into your past self, etc.) But even in a timeline that has lived through Thanos annihilating half the universe with a single snap of his fingers, there’s a social urgency to this particular story that feels unique.
Adapted from Bristol’s 2017 short film by the same name, See You Yesterday has obvious parallels to Back To The Future. Michael J. Fox even makes a cameo as a high school teacher — and in another fun wink, he’s reading Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred. But while it may follow Marty McFly’s funny antics in form, its heady emotional arc is a lot closer to Butler’s seminal Black time-travel novel, which follows a Black woman going back in time to the Antebellum South.
CJ (Eden Duncan Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) are brilliant teens hell-bent on winning their high school’s science competition with a travel device prototype that they hope will get them out of East Flatbush and into the Ivy League. And to their surprise, it actually works.
At first, time travel just seems like a fun idea — jump back 24 hours, stay for 10 minutes, get back at your rude ex by throwing a Slushee at him, and be back in time for dinner. The film does a great job of conveying their thrilled exhilaration upon realizing the scope of their scientific breakthrough, and it’s heartwarming. Moreover, seeing two Black teens, one of them a woman, taking time — with all the history of oppression and injustice that it symbolizes — into their own hands, feels revolutionary on its own.
But the stakes escalate drastically when CJ’s brother Calvin (Astro) is shot and killed by the police in a case of mistaken identity. Distraught over her loss, she convinces Sebastian to use their time travel creation to save Calvin from his terrible fate.
Jimena Azula’s colorful, buzzing production design gives us a time machine that feels like a cross between Ghostbusters and Spy Kids, in sharp contrast with the seriousness of its intended purpose. The result is a teen adventure film with adult emotional concerns echoing the fact that too many marginalized teens across the country have been faced with similar life-and-death situations.
Duncan Smith and Crichlow are compelling performers with charming chemistry, and the script allows them to flourish beyond stereotype. Their characters contain multitudes — they’re Black, they’re from Brooklyn (Lee’s influence is apparent in the lush, loving way the neighborhood is portrayed), they’re insanely smart, they’re brash, they’re impulsive, they’re fiercely loyal, they’re nerdy, they’re stylish, and did I mention SMART? They invented time travel in their sophomore year of high school.
Still, as in all time travel films, the plot starts to unravel if you think too much about it. Bristol deals with some of the issues by imposing specific constraints: CJ and Sebastian’s device only allows them to go back a week at the very most, and their time/space continuum wormhole closes after 10 minutes. This gives the characters a deadline (technically, CJ and Sebastian only have a finite window of time to save Calvin — once they get past the one week mark, they won’t have enough power to return to that moment in time), but the ticking clock comes off as artificial, mainly because many of the setbacks they face seem like they could easily be solved with small tweaks, like jumping back from a different location, or approaching a conversation just a tad more diplomatically.
As CJ and Sebastian go back over and over again to fix their mounting mistakes, the action starts to feel a little more Looper than Back to the Future. We see similar scenes play out slightly differently, pushed this way or that by the smallest variation in detail.
Undeniable, however, is the powerful impact of watching a cycle of violence that cannot be broken, no matter how many ways it plays out.