Read This Before You Watch “See You Yesterday”

Welcome the second week of our “Teens in the Twenty-Teens” media studies series. Over Memorial Day weekend, we’re watching “See You Yesterday” (2019), a movie that manages to combine the silly, time-travelling fun of “Back to the Future” with the heavier themes of institutional racism and social justice we’re more used to seeing in films like “The Hate U Give.”

Amazingly, this mash up works well, owing in large part to the filmmaking prowess of writer-director Stefon Bristol and his screenplay co-writer Fredrica Bailey. The acting by co-stars Eden Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow is also excellent. You’ll find a lot to enjoy in this film, even as it challenges you to grapple with some hard issues.

From the very start, “See You Yesterday” comes at us with some major credentials. Oscar-winning director Spike Lee produced the film. He was one of Brisol’s film instructors at NYU. The movie also starts with an awesome cameo that serves to connect this film’s central concept back to cinematic history. Not only that, but the book the high school teacher is reading in the opening scenes is Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), a classic science fiction novel about a black woman who travels back in time to confront antebellum slavery. This film knows its roots and intends to take its premise seriously.

Brilliant New York City high schooler C.J. (Duncan-Bailey) and her best friend Sebastian are poised to take this year’s Science Fair by storm. They’ve developed a machine that allows them to travel through time. Granted, they can only jump back a single day, cannot stay very long, and have to be very careful not to meet their former selves or make any major changes that would disrupt the timeline. Of course, it’s not long after their first successful jump that our protagonists encounter the narrative’s inciting incident. C.J.’s brother Calvin is mistaken for a robbery suspect and killed on the street by police.

The next phase of the movie is too obvious to be a spoiler. C.J. and Sebastian decide to use their time machine to change the past and save her brother Calvin’s life. Can they? Should they? What happens if they do? You’ll have to watch to find out.

As I said, this film does a remarkable job of balancing the lighter sci-fi adventure hijinks with the deeper philosophical aspects of tinkering with “reality” through time-travel and with the decidedly heavier social justice issues.

You’ll want to take a look at my discussion questions before you watch the movie. They’ll give you a better idea of where I’m heading with our exploration of the tropes and themes. Bear in mind that comparisons and contrast with “The Hate U Give” would be a great addition to our discussions. Yes, I know that movie isn’t technically part of our series, but it’s included by extension. You can read more about my rationale for not picking it (or the other mega-hit “The Fault in Our Stars”) in my blog post “No Fault, No Hate.”

If you enjoy this movie and have extra time over the long weekend, you might want to circle back and watch “Back to the Future.” The first one in this series is still definitely the best in the trilogy, but they remain a trio of good teen fun from the 1980’s. For heavier but related fare, you could also check out “Replay” (2019), the third episode of Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot on CBS All Access. However, for younger kids, be warned that “Replay” is aimed at an adult rather than a teen audience.

Have a great weekend everybody. Stay safe!

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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