Cinema and social commentary collide in entertaining and thought-provoking fashion in “See You Yesterday,” a mix of pop culture and true crime that feels tailor-made for a millennial Netflix audience. Stefon Bristol’s feature debut follows two African American Brooklyn teens as they try to use homemade time machines to undo a fatal police shooting — leading to an unforeseen set of calamitous new problems. With Eden Duncan-Smith’s stellar lead performance overshadowing some tonal uneasiness, the film should prove an appealing at-home option when it arrives on the streaming platform May 17.
Producer Spike Lee helped NYU student Bristol expand his short thesis film into full-length drama with a dynamic, lived-in depiction of East Flatbush that recalls Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” That’s far from the only movie touchstone in “See You Yesterday,” as Bristol’s story begins with a cameo from “Back to the Future” star Michael J. Fox; boasts one actor wearing a “Black Panther” T-shirt; and evokes both “The Hate U Give” and the new “The Twilight Zone” episode “Replay” in its portrait of African Americans coping with homicidal police violence (and striving to reverse it through fantastical means). In this case, the amazing agents of change are “Ghostbusters”-style proton packs invented by brilliant Claudette “CJ” Walker (Eden Duncan-Smith) and best friend Sebastian (Danté Crichlow), which open wormholes and transport users into yesterday.
While “Avengers: Endgame” might quibble with the notion that altering the past has a butterfly effect on the future, “See You Yesterday” takes a traditional view of time travel. CJ and Sebastian’s device transforms from a science expo project to a vehicle for social justice after her brother Calvin (Brian “Stro” Bradley) is mistaken for a bodego stick-up man and gunned down in the street by trigger-happy officers. Wearing matching denim lab coats over brightly colored clothes while at work, and aviator goggles and backpacks for their temporal leaps, CJ and Sebastian resemble comic-book characters. Their surrogate-sibling bond, however, is as unaffected as it is charming. That’s true of everyone in Bristol’s film, from Sebastian’s Jamaican grandparents (Myra Lucretia Taylor, Ron Bobb Semple) and CJ’s mom (Marsha Stephanie Blake) to CJ’s wannabe-boyfriend Eduardo (a scene-stealing Johnathan Nieves). All come across as vividly (and profanely) real.
Despite Sebastian’s warnings about the potentially catastrophic consequences of messing with the space-time continuum, CJ refuses to accept the hand of fate. The more she tries to rewrite history, though, the more she learns that destiny is a stubborn adversary, apt to fight back in unexpected ways. In that regard, “See You Yesterday” subtly, and smartly, presents death as an omnipresent (if not inescapable) facet of inner-city life. It’s too bad, then, that Bristol never fully reconciles the tonal friction between his out-there material and the recognizably grim reality in which it’s rooted, replete with TV broadcasts of Black Lives Matters protests. The disconnect mounts as the film races toward its climax, abandoning its early injection of humor.
At a fleet 80 minutes, “See You Yesterday” fortunately never lets its weightier concerns overwhelm its outsized personality, led by Duncan-Smith’s standout turn as CJ, whose stubbornness is her most potent superpower. With attitude to spare, she infuses these “Spy Kids”-esque shenanigans with mounting frustration and anger at inequity, as well as a belief that family is the thing most worth fighting for. Even more vibrant than Felipe Vara de Rey’s cinematography (full of thematically apt rotating camera moves) and a soundtrack of Jamaican tunes, Duncan-Smith makes the film her own, right up to the surprising, challenging and altogether sharp final note.