Coming-of-age fantasies in “See You Yesterday” and “Detective Pikachu”

Eden Duncan-Smith and Dante Crichlow in “See You Yesterday”

Growing up is hard to do, whether your world is real or a fantasy. The plights of coming-of-age take centre stage in two recently released features, the new Netflix film “See You Yesterday” and the live-action video game-based “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.” Certainly, they diverge on particularities and focus but they are not as mismatched as they may appear. Both films use fantastical elements to precipitate that difficult, but necessary, move from naiveté to maturity. Even when one opts for tougher ideas and messages than the other, they both meet to consider a central idea: growing up is not easy.

In Rob Letterman’s “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu,” we enter a fantasy world where Pokémon exist and are known. Tim Goodman is a recent orphan. His mother died a decade earlier and his father, a detective, has recently been killed on a case. As his father’s last remaining relative, the diffident Tim travels to Ryme City to retrieve his father’s belongings. Ryme City is a futuristic urban city where Pokémon and people live in harmony, and here Tim is accidentally thrust into the centre of the mystery of why and how his father died. The perceived harmony between Pokémon and humans disappears soon enough, and before long the film is following Tim on a high-octane investigation into the depths of his father’s past, and the depths of himself.

Indeed, the plot machinations are very familiar, to a large extent. “Detective Pikachu” is very much about the how of its development than the specificities of the what. The villain of the film, for example, seems immediately obvious. And there’s an inherent silliness to a film that sees a very young man and a talking Pokémon trying to solve a murder. It’s a pleasant silliness, initially, which is punctuated by some excellent visual work. What interrupts the mere pleasantries for something more thoughtful is the central performance. Justice Smith, most notably of the recent Netflix series “The Get Down,” plays young Tim, and manages to deliver a charming and winning performance that exudes a realistic warmth amidst a film that seems divorced from the real world. It’s not necessarily that his fellow actors are poor. Ryan Reynolds, for example, is quite good as the voice of Pikachu. But Pikachu’s excellence emanates more from the photorealistic animation on the character.

When the film focuses on Smith’s Tim – his resentment of his father, his uncertainty of his destiny – it inexplicably attains a nuance as it emphasises the difficulty of discerning oneself in a chaotic environment. It’s paradoxically assisted by Smith’s babyface, which makes him seem younger than his 21 years. His performance, because of this, ends up seeming like a projection of adulthood; like a schoolboy parading in a grown-up’s clothes. The disharmony ends up working to good effect, though,  as it becomes part of the film’s interest in representing Tim as a young man forced to mature beyond his years. So, he must face death and what it leaves behind. “Detective Pikachu” posits: when the world forces you to meet its trial, you have no choice but to face it.

It’s on that note of forced maturity that “Detective Pikachu” manages a strange symbiosis with the much more serious “See You Yesterday.” The recently released film, directed by Stefon Bristol and co-written by him and Fredrica Bailey, also uses a fantasy premise as crucible. But the social context is made more pointed by the film’s own cultural awareness.

The plot centres on two high-school prodigies: CJ and her best friend Sebastian. The two young black science prodigies are trying to build a time-machine for a school competition. What begins as a chance to prove their worth to their teacher (Michael J Fox in a nice cameo, which serves as a quasi call-back to “Back to the Future”) turns into something much more complicated when the time machine becomes an experiment of great importance after CJ’s brother is killed by the police. And what begins as a restless fantasy comedy about a headstrong teenager hellbent on proving her worth through science turns into an examination of grief and institutional racism in America.

“See You Yesterday” takes on great value as a film based on a short film that played at Guyana’s Timehri Film Festival in 2017. Bristol is a first-generation American (his parents are both Guyanese) and the film sometimes feels like an oblique love-letter of sorts to the region. It recognises the Caribbean diaspora in America. And it also recognises that to be black (and an immigrant) in America puts you in a place of relentless uncertainty. If “Detective Pikachu” flirts with the inevitability of death, “See You Yesterday” gets up close and personal with it. And just like Letterman’s film adds a dimension of maturity to something as sanguine as Pokémon, the hook of “See You Yesterday” complicates that childish thrill of fantastical time-travelling, turning it from a lark into a matter of actual life and death as CJ and Sebastian try to prevent multiple deaths.

As a fantasy film, “See You Yesterday” is less visually eclectic than Pikachu. The film is least adept when forced to present the spectacle of fantasy, but it’s significantly more compelling in its reach and ambition when it falters. And especially when it falters. The union between the film’s rumination on grief and the spitfire teen comedy does not always appear seamless but Bristol’s debut film is all the more gnarly and compelling for the lack of seamlessness. This comes across especially in the performances, which are direct and pronounced with emotion. Eden Duncan-Smith, as CJ, gives a central performance that rarely condescends to niceties of heroines but instead leans into the abrasive sides of CJ. It’s a compelling choice, and she’s excellent throughout. And it’s clear that Bristol is at his best with the actors. The small moments between characters land with emphasis and import.

As a Netflix release, “See You Yesterday” is available the world-over for audiences to enjoy and consider its heavy ambitions, which a major studio may very well have balked at. It’s good it has found a home. Still, I wonder what a theatrical release may have promised. Audiences are flocking to the latest blockbusters in theatres around the city and in some cases these blockbusters manage surprising rewards (like with “Detective Pikachu”), but “See You Yesterday” feels especially potent and necessary. It feels important to have a fantasy film about teenagers centred on persons of colour that recognises that for black youths in America, childhood is not business as usual.

“Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” is currently playing at local theatres, while “See You Yesterday” is available for streaming on Netflix.

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