I didn’t expect to have a visceral reaction to “See You Yesterday,” a new Netflix offering. After seeing the trailer, I knew there was potential for upset, but I was certain the film would have a fluffyish ending.
Or, so I thought.
“See You Yesterday” is the story of two teenage geniuses, CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), who have built a time machine. The film picks up after the technology’s invention but before successful completion of a trip back in time. Both CJ and Sebastian have big dreams for its creation that go far beyond high school science expos. For CJ and Sebastian, the tech is a ride out of their neighborhood. MIT, Spelman, Morehouse and other prestigious colleges are in their futures if they nail this.
The pair manage to figure out protons, electrons, energy displacement and everything else I don’t understand to create an honest-to-gosh, working time machine. Granted, it’s not so much a machine as tubing, circuitry and other movable parts they each carry in a backpack.
CJ and Sebastian are planning their glorious futures when disaster strikes. CJ’s brother, Calvin (Astro), is shot and killed by a police officer in a case of mistaken identity. Two black men robbed a nearby bodega, and Calvin and his friend just happen to be in the vicinity. It could happen to anyone, right?
Here’s the beauty of a time machine: You can go back and fix what once went wrong, right? You’re basically Sam Beckett in “Quantum Leap” as you try to put right what once went wrong. In this case, CJ decides she and Sebastian can save her brother, so that’s what they decide to do.
But, the trips don’t go smoothly. Each one is complicated by some unforeseen obstacle, from run-ins with CJ’s jerk ex-boyfriend, Jared (Rayshawn Richardson), to situations going horribly wrong, such as Sebastian being shot instead. Each trip becomes messier and messier as CJ fails over and over again to save her brother.
“See You Yesterday” is a film about friendship and family. There’s a line in the film about friends being the family you choose, a sentiment I’ve always stood firmly by. I have some amazing people in my family, and that includes those put there by blood and those I have chosen to be part of my circle.
CJ already has lost her father. We knew he was in the military, but we don’t know much more than the fact he received a Purple Heart and his dog tags are a constant around Calvin’s neck. Losing her brother is too much for her to bear. She believes she has the ability to save her brother, and damn the consequences. Each time-travel misstep only leaves her more determined.
As the film goes on, you root for CJ to complete her mission and save her brother. At the same time, you begin preparing yourself for the inevitable outcome: Calvin can’t be saved. We don’t know this, but while each setback strengthen’s CJ’s resolve, the audience feels theirs begin to crumble a bit.
This film feels a bit reminiscent of stories I’ve read or seen before. “See You Yesterday” offers the dramatic gut punch the novelization of Angie Thomas’ “The Hate You Give” gave us a couple of years ago. (Side note: Thomas’ book is fantastic, but I found the film adaptation to be lacking.)
And, of course, it’s a time-travel story, so the creative team decided to pull in the ultimate time traveler for a small role: Michael J. Fox. Great Scott! (If you don’t get the reference, I’m not telling you.)
But, more than that, it’s a story of injustice and trying to find something that makes sense in a world that’s gone mad. Our main character aims to fix the past, but the question remains whether she can. Are the institutional barriers too much to overcome? The film doesn’t offer clear answers, but it appears to tell us we should be focused on the struggle, not the outcome. We don’t get easy answers here, and that’s why it sticks with you well after it has ended.