Time Travel Thursday: Two Distant Strangers (2020)
Time travel tropes5
Matthew Turner | On 27, May 2021
Directors: Travon Free, Martin Desmond Roe
Cast: Joey Bada$$, Andrew Howard, Zaria Simone
Where to watch Two Distant Strangers online in the UK: Netflix UK
Has Palm Springs whetted your appetite for more time travel titilation? Transport yourself no further than Time Travel Thursday, our column devoted to time travel movies. It’s on Thursday.
The title of this Oscar-winning short is derived from a Tupac lyric: “Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers.” The film was written by Travon Free (although there is an ongoing plagiarism dispute) in a five-day period last July, two months after the death of George Floyd. Free co-directed with Martin Desmond Roe and the film was filmed over another five-day period in September, with a reputed quarter of the budget going on coronavirus safety protocols.
The 32-minute film stars rapper Joey Bada$$ as Carter, a young Black man who wakes up with Perri (Zaria Simone), having gone back to her place for a hook-up the night before. After some morning flirtation that establishes they’ll see each other again, Carter leaves, intending to get back to his own apartment and his dog, Jeter. However, after a violent encounter with white NYPD officer Merk (Andrew Howard), Carter finds himself trapped in a time loop that always ends with his death at the hands of the police.
As the synopsis suggests, the film makes a powerful statement about the seemingly endless cycle of violence that exists between Black men and women and the police in the USA. In Free’s own words, “it felt like living in the worst version of Groundhog Day ever”.
Given the distressing subject matter and its relationship to real-life news events, the film is extremely hard to watch in places, not least in the initial death sequence, which has Carter being sat on and suffocated by three cops, deliberately echoing the tragic death of George Floyd. Free uses the subsequent reliving of the event to effectively express shock, horror and despair, as well as, crucially, a tiny chink of hope.
It is an inspired use of the time loop subgenre. Elsewhere, Two Distant Strangers mostly embraces its rules and tropes: there are repeated actions that are either corrected (a glass bottle that doesn’t get smashed) or put to use in subsequent loops, eg. “predicting” previously witnessed events in order to prove the existence of the time loop to someone else. However, the film adds a necessarily depressing twist towards the end, driving home its central point in decisive fashion.
Essentially a three-hander (plus the cute dog), the film is nicely acted by Bada$$, Howard and Simone. The relationship between Bada$$ and Howard is consistently interesting, especially when the film has them effectively acknowledge that they’re both stuck in the same endless cycle. However, Howard’s terrifying performance ensures that you’re always aware of how their interactions could slip into violence and death at any moment.
Throughout the film, the pacy direction and sharp editing keep things moving at a brisk pace, while Free and Roe also add a number of nice little touches, from a clever placement of the infinity symbol (formed by the 9 on Perri’s door having fallen down so it looks like a 6) to a terrific drone shot that passes over a rooftop with “SAY THEIR NAMES” and the names of real-life victims of police violence graffitied on it.
Watching the film without reading any background information, it’s possible to come away with the complaint that Carter doesn’t try enough different ways to escape his fate. However, the explanation for that provides the film’s final sobering detail, in that every single interaction in the film that results in Carter’s death is drawn from a real-life incident.
Two Distant Strangers is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.