How often are our lives inexplicably and permanently changed by a single moment with major impact on the future?
One decision, one choice, one matter of happenstance could easy alter the course of individual history. It’s these questions of “what if” that dominate the romantic dramedy genre and for the first time since the 1998 feature Sliding Doors, a new movie confronts the duality of a single moment head on.
Look Both Ways, which debuts on Netflix this past week, centers around a University of Texas senior and the pregnancy test that could keep her from her dream job as an animator in Los Angeles and propel her into a whole new world of motherhood. Director Wanuri Kahiu’s feature from a script by writer April Prosser blends two distinct narratives – one where Natalie’s test is positive and the other where it’s negative – into a largely successful, if not slightly derivative romantic dramedy that will help tide things over for cinephiles in an August calendar with slim pickings for new cinema.
“Riverdale” star Lili Reinhart pulls double duty as Natalie, fully embracing the challenge of playing the same character from very different perspectives. It’s a performance that’s easy to get behind as a viewer with her affable wit and once the story really picks up, Reinhart capably manages to soften Natalie in both motherhood and adulthood with charm and grace.
There’s limitations to the character work due to the duality of the narrative as Reinhart has to basically start from scratch twice with small variations on Natalie and build outward from a single inciting incident. Audiences don’t really get a deep understanding of Natalie’s individuality outside of the men in her life and Reinhart doesn’t try to explore with much nuance.
Danny Ramirez as Natalie’s long-time friend Gabe and David Corenswet as love interest Jake both provide just enough to be plausible romantic outlets for Natalie’s affections, but neither performance is especially memorable once the credits roll.
In fact, the most engaging work in the film comes from Andrea Savage and Luke Wilson as Natalie’s parents, whose natural chemistry with Reinhart provides the film with some truly endearing moments that are among the highlights of the entire feature.
The key to the film’s success or failure for audiences mainly comes from the balance in the narrative structure once the central conceit is established. It would be exceptionally easy to ruin Natalie as a balanced character by focusing too much on one version.
If viewers spend too much time with Natalie as a mother, there’s no room for audiences to connect emotionally with career-focused Natalie and vice versa. Kahiu’s film hinges on the ability to translate Prosser’s screenplay visually, emotionally and in the editing room in a manner that treats both sides of Natalie’s journey with equal focus and clarity.
This isn’t always an easy hurdle to climb, especially in the early moments as Kahiu must introduce the duality of Look Both Ways by hopping cross country at a moment’s notice with little set up or signposting to viewers that a change is coming. It truly becomes more apparent over time thanks to subtle changes in Natalie’s hair and clothing to reflect visually how much her two lives veer apart.
Kahiu ties this together strikingly well at times with some impactful animations done in the style of Natalie’s art that help reorient audiences within the realities and timelines.
There’s nothing especially groundbreaking with this relatively run-of-the-mill dramedy, but Netflix would stand to do well by continuing to pump out these moderately affordable, easily accessible dramedies to fill the void left by major studios who no longer develop mid-budget rom-coms that audiences used to flock to in the early 2000s with stars like Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl.
Until the box office begins to show light at the end of the tunnel, moving from the summer doldrums into awards season where the biggest films of the year are released beginning in October, it’s hard not to give a dramedy like Look Both Ways a shot for viewers looking to turn off their brains and relax at home.