In “Don’t Let Go” — retitled from “Relive,” as it was known at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival — David Oyelowo plays an LAPD detective who gets a call from the cell phone of a teenage girl whose body he discovered shot dead in her bathtub just hours before. The victim was his niece, Ashley (Storm Reid), and so the cop can’t believe his ears when he hears her voice on the other end of the line. Except Ashley is still dead. Turns out the call — not a recording, but an actual conversation — is coming from four days earlier, which means he has a chance to alter the past, and save her life.
On paper, that sounds like a compelling premise for a supernaturally tinged crime movie, as well as a possible comeback project for writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes, who could use a do-over more than most in Hollywood these days. Estes’ career started strong 15 years ago when his first film, “Mean Creek,” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. He was back a few years later with “The Details,” which was too ambitious for its own good (it was subsequently re-edited, then bombed), and it’s been radio silence ever since.
Maybe Estes has learned a lesson, scaling back to make a small, commercial movie for producer Jason Blum. Hey, it worked for M. Night Shyamalan. Trouble is, “Don’t Let Go” isn’t very good — no better than your average late-night TV movie — and while Oyelowo and Reid are likable enough actors, they behave so frustratingly here (she spends most of her screen time flipping her extensions out of her face and looking confused) that audiences will want to grab the phones from their hands and commandeer the conversation.
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While the setup — the bit about a detective getting calls from someone who’s about to die — suggests all sorts of interesting narrative possibilities, you could give the same core idea to a dozen film-school students, and you’d almost certainly get 12 better screenplays. That said, if anyone knows how to market a concept-driven low-budget thriller, it’s Blumhouse, and if this one can manage to eke out enough money to get Estes’ career back on track, maybe he (or someone else) could cook up a few spinoffs in which other, better characters also receive calls from the past and react to them in different ways.
In the meantime, we’re stuck with this bare-bones execution, which introduces uncle Jack (Oyelowo) as the only responsible adult in Ashley’s life. From the opening scene, in which he picks her up after a movie, we gather that he gave her a cell phone, told her to call him anytime, and has taken a more active role in her guardianship. What we don’t yet realize — the following is less a spoiler than an “enricher,” liable to make the film more interesting by teasing a theory about its master design — is that Jack has been down this road before, and that some of the calls Ashley has been getting are from an earlier iteration of his future self (the garlic chicken detail is an early clue).
When Jack gets his first call, he’s pretty slow even to accept the sci-fi scenario, spending one long scene returning to the scene of the crime to recover her phone and stare at its dead-battery screen before finally processing the only explanation: that he has a one-way line to the past. Because he doesn’t know who Ashley’s killer is, he feels helpless to intervene, with the clock ticking while his boss (Alfred Molina) and most trusted colleague (Brian Tyree Henry) pressure him to take some time off. And so he decides the best way to save her is to identify her murderer and tell her before he shows up that fatal night, even if it might be more effective to put her on a Greyhound to another city entirely.
For some reason that probably has to do with the rules of time-travel/butterfly-effect movies, he doesn’t want her to have any contact with his former self. Presumably, changing past-Jack’s timeline would disrupt future-Jack’s ability to pitch in — although things get complicated anyway when future-Jack’s sleuthing gets him shot. “If you save me, I’ll save you,” becomes the duo’s mantra as they find an unusual way of communicating across the four-day gap.
More engaging as a kind of ghost-story puzzle than a conventional murder mystery, “Don’t Let Go” feels as if it’s aimed at teenage audiences, although they’ll be the first to grow impatient with how clumsily Jack and Ashley use their mobile devices. Instead of writing license plates on napkins, can’t she take photos and leave them on her phone for him to find? And wouldn’t texting be more effective than calling, or does this particular wormhole not accept data? With any luck, “Don’t Let Go” will get a reboot down the road, in which someone takes better advantage of the basic idea.