Project Almanac has a lot of fresh ideas, and a few stale ones.
It's a found-footage time travel film about a group of likable teens who, against all odds, construct a time machine and have a hell of a time playing around with it. It plays on sci-fi genre tropes cleverly at first, but increasingly falls prey to them as the film marches on.
The movie begins with David (Jonny Weston), a young mechanical genius, filming a demo of his "intelligent propulsion system" for an MIT scholarship application. His sister, Chrissy (Virginia Gardner), is behind the camera, and his best friends Goldberg (Sam Lerner) and Adam (Allen Evangelista) help him out with the machinery. The open is clever and actually quite funny. Without a lot of exposition, we learn everything we need to know about David and crew. He's freakishly smart, dorkily charming, and comes across as a genuine guy.
David nails a place in MIT's upcoming class, but not the scholarship he needs to be able to attend. Desperate for ideas, he rummages around in his long-deceased dad's old stuff, when he finds a video camera with a tape from his seventh birthday party — the day his father died. Eagle-eyed, he spies himself — at age 17 — in the shot. This leads him to find a set of mysterious blueprints in the basement, and he, along with Chrissy, his buddies, and popular girl Jessie (Sofia Black-D'Elia), build a time machine. Wanting to document their "experiments," David insists on filming everything, and voila, the conceit for Project Almanac is born.
That may sound like a ludicrous setup, but it's played with the right blend of humor and wide-eyed optimism. The kids do what any red-blooded teens would do with such a toy and indulge in the ultimate high school wish fulfillment. They use the machine to go back to a previous day at school and right all the "wrongs" they encountered. Goldberg goes back to ace a test he failed. Chrissy gets revenge on a bully. Then they start getting bolder — going back further and further, getting up to crazy adventures wherever — rather, whenever — they go.
The film's young cast is up to the task
My biggest worry going in was the high school framing. If Project Almanac's young cast of characters wasn't likable, the film would completely sink, but thankfully, they're up to the task. David has a touch of the shy geek stereotype about him, but despite his nervousness around pretty girls, he's friendly and clearly cares about the people in his life. There's a very natural chemistry among the group, and believable romances, as well as equally believable heartbreaks, spring up among them.
The characters feel like real teens. They make dumb mistakes, and they can be short-sighted, but generally, they're nice kids and their exploits are good-spirited and fun to watch.
That's crucial, because the plot itself loses steam in its last third, when Almanac falls prey to a number of time travel story cliches. It's disappointing, given the fresh tone and setting for a time travel narrative. Not even the ending can save it from a groaning sense of "been there, done that."
It also could've done without the tired gender stereotypes. The boys in Project Almanac are nerdy and super smart, the girls are classically beautiful and not particularly gifted. It's a subtle but annoying feature in a movie that otherwise plays it light with the high school hijinks.
Project Almanac is still a fun bit of escapism, despite its limping at the finish line. It's a far better teen movie than sci-fi film, but thanks to its affable cast, I wasn't wishing for a magical do-over to have those two hours back.