From Jordan Peele to Spike Lee, modern black cinema is branching out into all manner of genres and audiences. “See You Yesterday,” a Tribeca Film Festival first feature from Stefon Bristol (and produced by Lee), is a heavy-handed but slick foray into the world of science fiction.
This playful drama set in East Flatbush (one of Brooklyn’s few remaining ungentrified neighborhoods) follows black teenage geniuses CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) as they cope with their kooky families and grow up against the violent backdrop of police brutality. Oh yeah, they also invent time travel — a convenient coincidence, since CJ’s brother Calvin (Astro) is soon murdered by the NYPD.
Equal parts choppy and charming, “See You Yesterday” has trouble balancing quirk and melodrama. The issues it takes on are impossibly hefty, and, like its 16-year-old protagonist, the film offers no satisfying solutions. Despite being one of the smartest people alive, CJ is still a hotheaded teenager, and she approaches her problems like one. From Time Jump One, CJ is her own worst enemy, putting herself and those around her in more danger than she actually saves them from. I’m not suggesting that an 80-minute film (thus, CJ) singlehandedly solve the American epidemic of police brutality, but it makes less sense to root for her than it does everybody telling her to slow her roll.
It doesn’t help that “See You Yesterday” delivers most of its plot with all the subtlety of a car crash. Its foreshadowing looks more like signposting, and major ideas are often repeated unnecessarily. When Calvin pointedly tells CJ she can have something of his “over my dead body,” it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen next — and yet, the line is repeated to us later on. Even the film title gets its own double-delivery. A charming cameo from Michael J. Fox (for obvious reasons) wears out its welcome when he has to say, “Great Scott.”
Yet despite its shortcomings, “See You Yesterday” is a pertinent tale of chosen family and co-ed friendship, with a standout performance from Crichlow and precocious comedic genius from supporting actor Johnathan Nieves. It’s great that CJ and Bash can love each other without it having to be like that. It’s great to see black culture take center stage in a genre pic. Sci-fi has hardly been so self-serious, or so playful, since Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.”
While it can be annoying to see Netflix gobble up titles before they can enjoy a more public debut, “See You Yesterday” is an apt choice for the platform. Its “Doctor Who”-ish special effects and dialogue-driven script don’t require much visual bandwidth, and you’re likely to enjoy the film more if you don’t pay $16 to see it. Kick back on a night when you’re looking for both gravity and glee (emphasis on the gravity), and enjoy. [B-]