Director: Stefon Bristol
Cast: Eden Duncan-Smith, Danté Crichlow, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Johnathan Nieves
Watch See You Yesterday online in the UK: Netflix UK
Wondering how to fill the time travel gap now that Travelers and Timeless have been cancelled? Then transport yourself no further than Time Travel Thursdays, our column devoted to time travel movies on Netflix. It’s on Thursdays.
Debut writer-director Stefon Bristol expands his own student short into this entertaining teen time travel picture, thanks to the involvement of producer Spike Lee, who also taught Bristol at NYU. It’s easy to see what appealed to Lee, as the film shares the milieu, the energy and the anger of Lee’s Do The Right Thing, while seamlessly blending social commentary and time travel tropes.
Set in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of East Flatbush, the film centres on best friends Claudette “CJ” Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian Thomas (Dante Crichlow), a pair of super-smart African-American teenagers who have invented time travel as part of a school science project. (Their teacher, delightfully, is played by Michael J. Fox, in a single-scene cameo.) When CJ’s older brother, Calvin (Brian “Astro” Bradley), is mistakenly shot and killed by police, she and Sebastian go back into the past to save him, but their repeated interventions lead to a series of ever-increasing disasters.
Reprising their roles from Bristol’s short, Duncan-Smith and Crichlow deliver terrific performances, generating a believable BFF bond that’s extremely moving. There’s also palpably charismatic support from Bradley, in a likeable performance that, like the two leads, suggests he has a big future ahead of him. (As if to flag that up, Bristol grants him the title line.)
The film has a lot of fun with its premise, deploying a number of time-honoured time travel tropes and throwing in enjoyable lines like “We don’t want to run into our first attempt selves” or “We didn’t invent time travel so you could get back at your ex-boyfriend, CJ”. The film also makes smart use of concepts from other time travel movies (notably the flickering photograph bit from Back to the Future), alongside other knowing references, such as the fact that their backpack-contained time machines look like Proton Packs from Ghostbusters.
Thematically, the film has a lot in common with “Replay”, the third episode of the new Twilight Zone series, which used time travel and a police shooting to deliver a similarly hard-hitting social message about the endless cycle of violence. Here, Bristol takes a gamble with the ending that largely pays off, even if some may find it frustrating.
The film also deserves praise for its decision to keep romantic relationships at arm’s length, with CJ and Sebastian scoffing at the idea that they’re anything other than best friends. That also allows for a fun moment when CJ is forced to get help from a friend who has a crush on her (Johnathan Nieves as Eduardo) by promising him a date, only to point out that if their plan works, he won’t remember, so she won’t have to go through with it.
On top of that, aside from creating a vibrant, lived-in Flatbush neighbourhood (Jamaican accents abound), Bristol directs with an infectious sense of energy, aided by the simple expedient of having his characters run around a lot. He also delivers where it counts, making sure his emotional scenes land a powerful punch.