‘See You Yesterday’ Film Review: Sprightly Teen Time-Travel Comedy Reveals Dark Truths

Tribeca 2019: What starts as a “Back to the Future” homage eventually becomes a look at police violence against black Americans

See You Yesterday

Stefon Bristol’s debut feature “See You Yesterday,” which has Spike Lee as one of its producers, revolves around the ingenuity of two 16-year-old friends, Claudette (Eden Duncan-Smith, “Roxanne Roxanne”) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), who are working on a homemade time machine in Sebastian’s garage. The effects in this movie are as charmingly lo-fi as the backpack modules that they wear to travel back in time for 10-minute intervals.

“See You Yesterday” nods to some of its 1980s forebears by having Michael J. Fox turn up as one of their teachers at the Bronx High School of Science. Claudette is reading Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in his class, while Fox has his nose buried in Octavia Butler’s “Kindred,” a popular time travel novel from 1979. When Claudette tells Fox’s Mr. Lockhart about her time-travel backpack project, which she hopes will get her into MIT, Bristol keeps his camera on Fox so he can say Christopher Lloyd’s catchphrase from the “Back to the Future” movies in which he starred: “Time travel? Great Scott!”

Cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey often favors pretty effects of light for their own sake in some of the shots of Claudette and Sebastian working in the garage, and the musical score sometimes sounds like it wants to break into the kind of sprightly Mickey Mousing that used to flood studio movies of the ’80s and ’90s. But the content here is very of-the-moment, and the trappings of genre are used in an attempt to tell some harsh truths.

Claudette and Sebastian are shown to inhabit a world where they and their friends and family might be harassed and/or gunned down by police at any moment. When Claudette is having an argument on the street with her brother Calvin (Astro, “A Walk Among the Tombstones”), they are confronted by two policemen, and Claudette mentions that one of the policemen recently shot an unarmed man. When they return home, Bristol sketches in the bond between brother and sister, how she pedantically corrects his grammar and how much he loves her for it.

Claudette is a very fresh film character because she is outright nerdy in many ways — wearing glasses and spending no time trying to ingratiate herself with anyone — yet, because of that, she is viewed by the film and by the other characters as a force to be reckoned with and admired. Both Claudette and Sebastian make for very appealing young protagonists. Another fresh element is that these two are friends without any serious romantic tension between them; Claudette is clearly the leader in their decision-making processes.

She’s very smart, smart enough to figure out the “temporal re-location” that Sebastian says stumped Einstein, but she has a temper, and she doesn’t think emotional things through clearly enough. This becomes apparent when they first go back in time, and she takes the opportunity for a petty act of vengeance against a former boyfriend. The ex-boyfriend breaks his arm, which hadn’t happened before, setting off a chain reaction that eventually gets her brother Calvin shot by police.

As “See You Yesterday” moves forward, the cheerful tone of the first scenes starts getting far bleaker as we are made to realize that each time Claudette and Sebastian go back in time to try to fix what happened, they are caught in some scenario where someone has to get shot. There is no wish fulfillment here, which is what might have resulted with a less tough point of view.

Instead, it becomes gradually apparent that the point of this narrative, co-written by Bristol and Fredrica Bailey (based on their short film of the same name), is that if you are black in America, there are certain scenarios in which you cannot avoid getting killed. Nonetheless, Claudette always thinks that she can come up with some way of fixing things.

“See You Yesterday” would end up being a very dark movie indeed if it didn’t have Duncan-Smith’s un-smiling and very stubborn and brainy face at its center, determined to think her way out of a set-up that is stacked so heavily against her that time travel changes only the victims, but not the violence.