On paper, a film that is basically a mash-up of “Sliding Doors” and “Peggy Sue Got Married” starring “Riverdale‘s” Lili Reinhart should be a fun, diverting rom-com to wrap up the summer. Unfortunately, the new Netflix film “Look Both Ways” is misguided on almost every level.
Reinhart plays soon-to-be college graduate Natalie whose five-year, post-grad plan includes moving to Los Angeles with her best friend Cara (Aisha Dee, “The Bold Type”) and pursuing work in feature animation. After a one-night stand with her friend Gabe (Danny Ramirez, “Top Gun: Maverick”) results in a pregnancy scare, the film splits down two paths. In one scenario, Natalie puts her dreams aside to stay at home and raise the baby with the help of Gabe and her parents (Andrea Savage, Luke Wilson, the only light in this abysmal film). In the other, she moves to L.A. with Cara, gets a job working for her idol Lucy (Nia Long, looking really bored), and falls for fellow filmmaker Jake (David Corenswet, “We Own This City”).
This is light fantasy, sure, but it’s impossible to watch a film about a young woman dealing with an unplanned pregnancy in the state of Texas in the year 2022 and completely divorce it from the reality facing women’s reproductive rights, in that state in particular, and in the United States overall. There is a very hamfisted attempt to imply that abortion is an option. Pointedly, that word is never used. Instead, Gabe mutters something like, “I’m pro- your choice” and the subject is never brought up again. Neither are childcare costs, health insurance premiums, or any of the myriad other economic challenges that accompany parenthood.
The film cuts between these two scenarios as we check in with Natalie over a five-year period. While in the pregnancy timeline, care is taken to show the emotional toll having a child can take on a mother, there is little discussion of the economic realities of Natalie’s situation. She lives with her parents, who it seems can afford to support both her and her child completely despite the film never establishing what it is either of them does for a living. It’s vaguely implied that Gabe has a job, but does he have parents or any family? This film doesn’t care. When we do learn anything about Gabe, it’s only to further complicate their relationship, not to imbue the character with any shades of nuance or complexity.
In the L.A. scenario, Natalie lands her dream job, yet balks when she’s told she needs to work on finding her own voice before she can expect a promotion. Cara, whose job is generically described as “working in advertising”, devolves into Black best friend stereotypes, seemingly only there to listen to Natalie’s problems. A queer subplot with Cara sleeping with their neighbor plays out in the background, but, like the rest of her character, is never really fleshed out beyond what serves Natalie’s storyline. When Jake starts a producing job that takes him out of town for six months, Natalie breaks up with him instead of working through the long-distance hurdles. Oh, but don’t worry, a happy ending awaits, because apparently her actions have no consequences in the long term, nor is any give required on her part in this relationship.
Your early-20s are a time for growth and, yes, selfishness. Yet Natalie never seems to learn or grow from any of the conflicts she faces in either scenario. There is a generic montage where, in Texas, Natalie works feverishly on a comic strip inspired by her daughter (another character we know little about despite spending five years with, other than her penchant to cry all night when she was a baby) and in L.A. Natalie works on an animated short film. Miraculously both projects result in an invitation to SXSW in Austin – a huge advertorial-like sequence for the festival.
If the goal of “Look Both Ways” is to show that no matter which path Natalie went down she would end up okay, it succeeds. But Natalie is only able to achieve her creative dreams in both scenarios because of the financial help she receives from her parents (and Cara in the L.A. timeline, because otherwise, I don’t know how she took months off from her job and still had a roof over her head in the L.A. housing market). There is no emotional growth from the college-age Natalie introduced in the opening scene and the Natalie(s) at the end of the film.
That this catastrophe is director Wanuri Kahiu’s follow-up after her sublime debut “Rafiki” makes it all the more disappointing. Where that film has rich characterization, this has generalities. Where that film has vibrant cinematography, this has dreadful, bland compositions. Where that film has a detailed sense of place, this film has a disjointed, geographically murky portrait of L.A. and what appears to be a sponsored by SXSW and Whataburger view of Texas.
Reinhart has consistently been the best thing about “Riverdale” since it premiered five years ago and Kahiu’s debut feature (as well as her afro-futurist short “Pumzi”) showed a filmmaker capable of much greater depth, so hopefully, this dud says more about the Netflix machine than it does either of them and remains a blip on both of their filmographies. Unfortunately, any way you look at it, “Look Both Ways” fails to do either of them justice. [D+]
“Look Both Ways” is available now on Netflix.