Summer is the season of sleeper hits – unassuming movies that quietly enter cinemastream and persistently gather buzz until, suddenly, it seems that everyone is talking about them. Think of movies like Crazy Rich Asians or Napoleon Dynamite. And frequently, sleeper hits coming in the form of groundbreaking genre films like The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, or District 9.
See You Yesterday should be this year’s sleeper hit. But it isn’t yet.
Maybe it’s because Netflix is the distributor – which is awesome for accessibility, but tough when the algorithm doesn’t directly recommend the movie and shows like Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Stranger Things are dominating the streaming news.
Or maybe it’s because See You Yesterday takes a gutsy risk by blending high concept, Amblin-esque wonder with the violent discontents of contemporary racial injustice.
In his wildly impressive feature debut, writer-director Stefon Bristol opens with the movie’s two leads, teenagers CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), standing in an alley, explaining to a camera that they are about to attempt time travel. They’re decked out in beautifully bootstrapped tech – imagine if Data from The Goonies had been a Ghostbuster – and their backdrop is that glorious, sacred space of weird science: the garage. They countdown, they hold their breath, and then…nothing happens.
Next day at school, we find out that C.J. and Sebastian are trying to accomplish time travel so they can win a prestigious science contest. They are literally and metaphorically creating a better future for themselves, and the scale of their ambition feels perfectly fitting. That’s probably because they are granted permission by their teacher, whose cameo (don’t look it up) signals a meaningful passing of Hollywood’s temporal torch.
It’s a fun setup that holds its own charming promise. And when the ceremonial bell rings to herald the start of summer break, there’s a brief and misleading resignation to the fact that we’re in for something formulaic.
But the aura of a family-friendly, sanitized popcorn flick quickly evaporates when C.J. and Sebastian leave school. We’re thrust into Spike Lee’s New York (Lee is Bristol’s mentor and his influence shows) where the rhythms of daily life are punctuated with profanity, cultural clashes erupt unexpectedly on sidewalks and in bodegas, and young people mature through conflict more than nurturing. There’s a sudden rawness that overtakes the film, and it adds a critical degree of authenticity as the real story unfolds.
On the Fourth of July, a holiday designated as a celebration of America’s greatest virtues, C.J.’s older brother, Calvin (played by Astro), is casually walking home from a cookout. He’s a good man, established earlier as a fierce protector and gentle champion for his little sister in their father’s absence (a subtle nod to a common Spielberg trope). A police car tears into the scene, gracelessly embodying the country being we’re supposed to be celebrating. A racist cop jumps out of the car and shoots Calvin dead a few seconds later.
The fatal shot isn’t even shown because Bristol knows it won’t mean much to us. As consumers of the 24/7 news cycle, we’re desensitized to such a common outcome. So too is Calvin’s community, like his mother, for example, whose devastated silence conveys her understanding that this is the way our world works.
C.J., of course, has since perfected the technology needed to prevent Calvin’s death. In a desperate frenzy, suddenly void of her scientific rationalism and overcome with basic human grief, she convinces Sebastian to belay his fears about altering the space-time continuum and the two set out on a quest to save Calvin’s life.
The time travel genre is about existential curiosity or wish fulfillment, anchored by a simple question: what if? What if Marty McFly’s parents hadn’t married? What if Bill and Ted could graduate with a little help from history’s big heroes? Or what if James Cole could prevent the Army of the 12 Monkeys from destroying the world? Our audience expectations for the genre rest in a sense of comfortable fantasy. Even when the apocalypse is at stake, we’re safely removed from – and usually amused by – the scenario.
This is what brilliantly sets Stefon Bristol’s story apart. He wields the cliché that time travel has consequences as a piercing weapon of social commentary. In every attempt to reset the past, C.J. and Sebastian run into insurmountable systemic obstacles. Where other movies give the protagonists personal choices that are ultimately trivial, these two kids – keep their age in mind – are trapped in a world where every wrinkle they create in time causes devastating results for their whole community. What if we could save Calvin? isn’t the straightforward question it seems. If Calvin avoids his fate, there’s always another black person for the racist cop to shoot instead.
We’re witness to a world – our own – where the most powerful invention of all time isn’t enough to fix the immeasurably deep traumas for our collective history. If that seems bleak, don’t worry. Because even as our genius heroes struggle to reconcile the past, the movie’s most important message is bright and clear: the future is theirs for the taking, even if life absurdly demands harder work than inventing time travel.
One last point. If you look at the movie’s rating on IMDB, you’ll find an 4.9/10. Ignore it. See You Yesterday is the latest victim of racist, misogynistic, homophobic trolls who artificially drive down the ratings of movies because they can’t stand diversity. That’s not to say that everyone who doesn’t like the movie should be branded with an “-ist” or “-phobic” label, just that maliciously manipulated ratings are something that crowdsourced websites haven’t yet figured out how to combat.
The movie’s 94% critic approval rating is the one it deserves – and the one that should elevate this movie into the mainstream.
And Stefon Bristol deserves a much bigger platform for his next gig.